Three San Jose women and a teenager from Chico who were visiting Russia for a leadership conference are heading back to the Bay Area, days after Russian authorities detained them, saying they had the wrong visas.
Liana Randazzo, 27, and Quygen Ngo, 24, of San Jose, and Jennifer Phan, 21, and Sterling Winter, 18, of Chico, traveled to St. Petersburg on Oct. 31 under a grant from an Oakland nonprofit to attend a two-week conference.
Immigration authorities and police arrived at the conference unexpectedly Thursday and demanded to see their visas. Winter's father Scott Winter said his son and the others were interrogated and briefly detained before being fined the equivalent of $110 each for an administrative violation.
"This was a political statement the Russian government was trying to make," Scott Winter said.
The Tass news agency reported Yulia Nikolayeva, Russia's Federal Migration Service representative in St. Petersburg, said in a court hearing that the four had come to Russia on tourist visas but the activity they participated in was considered "social-political activity."
June Thompson, the executive director of the nonprofit, the California Association of Student Councils, said Tuesday that Russian immigration authorities deported the students, saying they should have had business visas.
Thompson said she understands that Russia is sensitive to concerns that Westerners may come to the country to engage in efforts to teach the locals about political activism that could be seen as encouraging opposition.
"If they get a sense of an American organization or any foreign money is coming in, then they have to register as a foreign agent," Thompson said.
U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki confirmed the four were "briefly detained in St. Petersburg before being released" and they were provided "all possible assistance."
Thompson said the four handled the situation with extraordinary poise and clear thinking. They were returning to the U.S. on Tuesday afternoon and not available for comment.
The conference was being led by the Association of Young Leaders, a Russia-based association that teaches young people leadership skills.
Thompson says none of the students was harmed. They were expected to land at San Francisco International Airport on Tuesday.