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Russia deports 2 U.S. Mormon Church volunteers after weeks in jail

Kole Brodowski, an American member of the The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints from Garden Grove, California, is seen in an undated Facebook photo. Facebook

Two Mormon Church volunteers were deported from Russia and flew back to the United States after spending almost three weeks in jail on unclear charges, a church spokesman confirmed on Wednesday. A Russian lawyer representing the two young American men told CBS News earlier this month that the deportation was expected.

In a statement emailed to CBS News, Eric Hawkins, a spokesman for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS), said Kole Brodowski, 20, and David Gaag, 19, "have been released and have left" Russia.

Hawkins said Brodowski was to return to his home in California, while Gaag was going to "return to the United States for a short time, receive any needed support, and then continue his service in a new mission."

Hawkins said the men had been "treated very well" after their arrest in the southern Russian city of Novorossiysk and were able to maintain "regular contact with their families and mission president."

Attorney Sergey Gliznutsa told CBS News on March 7 that the two men were going to be deported, and on Wednesday he said the delay in their departure was due to the court paperwork needed to grant their release.

Russia banned religious missionaries from operating on its soil under a counterterrorism law in 2016, but the LDS church said it had complied with the new restrictions by officially registering local workers as "volunteers," rather than missionaries.

"The Church is closely monitoring conditions in Russia for all volunteers and will continue to fully comply with Russian law," Hawkins said in the statement issued on Wednesday.

Russia is holding at least two other U.S. nationals, one over alleged espionage and another on fraud charges. 

Last month a Moscow court extended the detention of accused spy and former U.S. Marine Paul Whelan by three months, one of his attorneys told CBS News. Vladimir Zherebenkov said the court ordered Whelan held until May 28, when he's to appear in court again. Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB) sought the extension.

Whelan, who has U.S., British, Canadian and Irish citizenship, denies the charges against him.

Separately prominent U.S. investment manager Michael Calvey, who had worked in Russia for decades, was arrested in mid-February and is now facing fraud charges over the alleged embezzlement of $37 million. A court in Moscow rejected his appeal near the end of February and said he could be held in prison until April 13 pending the completion of the fraud investigation.

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