SAN FRANCISCO INT'L AIRPORT (KPIX 5) – A group of students from Bay Area who went to Russia for a youth conference returned Tuesday after they were detained, interrogated and put on trial.
The four young people, ranging in age from 18-27, were supposed to be in Russia for two weeks for youth leadership meetings. They arrived back at San Francisco International Airport a few hours ago with a very unusual story.
First out of customs at SFO, Liana Randazzo from San Jose, followed by Sterling Winter of Chico, who were much happier to see this group than the crowd in Russia who put the brakes on their trip.
"All of a sudden, all these people flood into the back of the room. And there are police officers, there is a news camera and there are people in really official looking uniforms talking to the director of the program," Randazzo recalled.
The four were representing the California Association of Student Councils, a nonprofit designed to inspire and cultivate youth leadership.
But instead of another week of meetings with their Russian counterparts, they were detained and interrogated for seven hours under the guise of a passport check.
"We were basically told that we needed to start signing things or we were going to spend the night in the room," Winter said. "And they purposely pulled us in and they fingerprinted us right next to the jail cells that were super dark and dreary."
Then they were put on trial and represented by lawyers who don't speak English. Their translator was a friend of a friend of the prosecutor.
"Because we were tried as four different cases, we could have been innocent, innocent, innocent, guilty. Four different verdicts, so that was something that really got my heart pounding," said Jennifer Phan of the group.
What saved them was a world renowned nuclear Russian scientist and founder of a sister program who testified on the group's behalf.
"It took my breath away. That was the moment of the trial that made me step back and realize the large scale of this," Randazzo said.
Looking rested and happy, the four discuss their bizarre encounters with Russian officials who were nice and seemingly confused themselves about what was going on. They said the State Department reassured the Americans, it would be ok.
"At no moment did I think 'Oh my gosh, I'll be stuck in Russia forever,'" said Quygen Ngo.
They were fined $100 each for having the wrong visas and were told to leave the country. But they all said they would go back after some time has passed.
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