November 12, 2014

San Jose women, Chico teen detained in Russia

After being detained by the Russian government since late last week for allegedly having improper visas, three San Jose women and one Chico teenager are heading back to the United States, this newspaper has learned.

After being detained by the Russian government since late last week for allegedly having improper visas, three San Jose women and one Chico teenager are heading back to the United States, this newspaper has learned.

The four – San Jose residents Liana Randazzo, 27, Quygen Ngo, 24, and Jennifer Phan, 21, and Chico resident Sterling Winter, 18 — were part of an international leadership conference for young adults and were attending a closing session Thursday in St. Petersburg when Russian police and immigration officials walked into the proceedings, asking to see their visas, said June Thompson, executive director of the California Association of Student Councils (CASC).

But after the group took investigators – who were also followed closely by Russian media – back to the hotel to show their documentation, the situation suddenly shifted. 

Investigators began a grueling seven-hour interrogation with the group, first at the hotel and later at immigration offices nearly an hour outside of the city. 

"When they asked to see our passports, I thought that was going to be it," Randazzo said. "(U.S. state department officials) told us that being detained was a new thing, so that increased the level of how scary it was for us and how restricted we felt."

Investigators told the group they were charged with using their visas for purposes other than what they had marked on their travel documents, and that their paperwork was incomplete. After the interrogation, investigators charged the four and that same night, they had their first court appearance. 

A judge continued the hearing to the next day, allowing the group to go back to their hotel on the condition they would not leave the country.

The only way the group could go home was when a judge decided their fate hinged on four choices: he could issue them a warning, a fine, deport them or at worst, jail them. 

"It became very clear that this wasn't just about us, that there was a bigger argument being made here," Randazzo said. "We told the truth. We kept it simple. There was a bigger picture that we weren't aware of and didn't understand."

Two Russian lawyers – neither of whom spoke English – were hired to represent the group, and U.S. State Department officials based in Russia also aided the group as they prepared for their court appearance. Prosecutors had the weekend to gather more evidence against the group, according to Thompson.

"I kept hearing the situation described as tense," she said. "I didn't feel anything other than that. This was a pressure situation that they definitely had to work their way through."

Monday morning came, and the group packed their bags Randazzo said, just in case they had to leave immediately after they were sentenced.

During their hearing Monday, Evgeny Velikhov – a renowned Russian scientist and founder of a sister program Thompson's organization partners with in Russia – flew from Moscow to St. Petersburg to testify on the group's behalf, something both Thompson and Randazzo said "was huge."

Velikhov's testimony certainly helped the group, who ultimately were fined $100 each for improper documentation, and though they had another week of meetings they could have attended, Thompson and other U.S. officials agreed their group needed to leave immediately.

"It is a bit of an out-of-body experience," said Randazzo, international director for CASC and a graduate of Loyola Marymount University in Chicago. "You are just trying to go from point A to point B, trying to figure out who you can trust and get through it. Once we get home, I think the reality and scale of what happened will start to set in."

Randazzo is expecting to receive a master's degree in organizational psychology from Alliant International University next year. Phan, is a senior trainer for CASC, a graduate of Santa Teresa High and UC Santa Cruz, and works for the California Public Employees Association in San Jose; Ngo is also a senior trainer for CASC, a graduate of Piedmont Hill High and Brown University, and works for San Jose Vice Mayor Madison Nguyen; Winter is a senior at Chico High School. 

It is still unclear what ramifications the group's detainment will hold for future interactions with the country; already a Russian delegation that was meant to come to the U.S. in January to participate in a workshop spearheaded by the organization has been whittled down from four people to two representatives.

Specifics behind why the government singled out the group and why they pushed to prosecute them is also a mystery, but the experience, Thompson said, was unlike anything they could have imagined.

"We've been in China, we've been in Pakistan, we've been all over the world," she said. "We are knowledgeable of the state of affairs of different countries and we are respectful of them. We've always gone (to countries) on a tourist visa. It never occurred it would be any different. This was a new wrinkle."

"We just wanted to get out of there, you don't want to poke the bear," Randazzo said. "I am excited to go home and plan our next adventure … but I can't wait to have the passport officials at the airport say, 'Welcome home.' "

Contact Katie Nelson at 408-920-5006 and follow her at Twitter.com/katienelson210.

By: mercurynews.com

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