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Published in Stream:
Russa Update: November 15, 2014
Press by
The Interpreter
Russian-to-English translation journal, with original analysis and commentary on Russia's foreign & domestic policy.
Four American Exchange Participants Detained, Forced to Leave Russia
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Four young Americans who were taking part in international leadership training in St. Petersburg were detained and told their visas were not in order, the San Jose Mercury reported earlier this week.

Russian police burst into the hall where the four were attending a closing session of a conference, and detained San Jose residents Liana Randazzo, 27, Quyen Ngo, 24, and Jennifer Phan, 21, and Chico resident Sterling Winter, 18, all US citizens involved in the California Association of Student Councils (CASC).

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."

The four were defended by Russian lawyers who did not speak English, and when prosecutors said they needed more time to gather evidence, the situation grew "tense," said the participants.

Yevgeny Velikhov, a top Russian science official and internationally-renowned physicist flew to St. Petersburg to intervene on behalf of the group, since he is the founder of a sister group with which CALC also partners. June Thompson, director of CALC, described this as "huge."


CALC exchange participants in St. Petersburg

Velikhov's testimony "certainly helped the group," said the San Jose Mercury whose members were ultimately fined $100 each for "improper documentation." Although their program was not finished, Thompson and other U.S. officials agreed they needed to leave Russia immediately.

Last month, two American professors of journalism had an identical experience in St. Petersburg when they, too, were detained by police in the middle of a lecture, brought before a judge, and told that their activities in Russia were "not consistent" with their type of visa -- a tourist visa.

Joe Bergantino, co-founder of the New England Center for Investigative Reporting and Professor Randy Covington of the University of South Carolina were in the middle of teaching a class when police detained and questioned them for several hours.

They said that the State Department had in fact suggested that they get tourist visas, which are easier and cheaper to obtain. They, too, decided to leave Russia early.

So it seems Russian officials are returning to the practices of the Soviet era, whereby any traveler can easily find himself afoul of complicated rules involving permission from the Foreign Ministry only for approved institutions and meetings, with stamps and verified numbers.

Velikhov, head of the Kurchatov Institute and the Tokamak thermonuclear experiment has long been an advocate of US-Russian exchanges. He was a leader of the now-defunct International Foundation for the Survival of Humanity, involving many prominent figures in Moscow and Washington in discussions of nuclear disarmament and human rights, even before the collapse of the USSR. He remains as a top science adviser to the Kremlin for nuclear issues.

For such a respected official to have to personally fly from Moscow to St. Petersburg to intervene in a police matter involving an exchange visitor's visa is a troubling signal.

-- Catherine A. Fitzpatrick