At 9.30 a.m. on Friday, 29 April 2022, Iryna Danylovych was waiting for a bus in the Black Sea town of Koktebel in Russian-occupied Crimea. A nurse, she had just finished a night shift at the old people’s home where she worked. No doubt Iryna was tired – looking forward to arriving back in her village of Vladislavoyka, where she was often greeted at the bus stop by her pet dog, Nika. As Iryna whiled away the minutes, a car pulled up with three men inside. Two of them wore balaclavas. The third man waved some kind of ID at Iryna, and insisted she comes with them, ‘for a chat’. She was forcibly taken and pushed inside the car. Iryna asked to see the arrest warrant. “Shut up… if you want to live,” she was told.
The men who abducted Iryna Danylovych were members of the FSB, Russia’s security service. As the car approached their headquarters in Crimea’s capital, Simferopol, one of the men pulled a bag over her head. She was handcuffed. This was how Iryna Danylovych entered the building. Her family, friends, and colleagues would know nothing about her whereabouts for 13 long days.
Iryna would have known what was coming. She may have been a medical professional, but she was also a citizen journalist, and human rights activist with knowledge of the many cases of forced abductions by the FSB. Since Russia occupied Crimea – part of Ukraine – in 2014, cases of disappearance, torture, and imprisonment on trumped-up charges have been well-documented.
In detention in a basement room, the FSB officers wanted Iryna Danylovych to give them information about independent journalists in Crimea. She was accused of cooperating with the security services of other countries. When she asked to phone her parents so they wouldn’t worry, and her employers to say she wouldn’t be coming to work, her interrogators laughed. She wouldn’t need a job anymore, they said. And they told her she should be worrying instead about getting out alive from this basement.
On Iryna’s second day in captivity, more FSB men arrived in balaclavas. She was beaten. One of the men came up behind her and began to asphyxiate her. Over the course of the next week, she was repeatedly subjected to intimidation. But despite the unlawful pressure on Iryna, the FSB didn’t get the information they wanted. On 6 May 2023 she was asked to sign some blank A4 pages – if you want to live, sign without a word, she was told. She signed. It was after they obtained the signatures that the FSB officers played their ace: unable to break her, and make her confess to ‘state treason’, they claimed they had discovered an explosive mechanism in her spectacles case. What Iryna would have been doing carrying such a device in her bag, to and from her work at an old people’s home, has never been explained.
"Freedom is my religion"
These are the words Iryna Danylovych has tattooed on the back of her neck, inspired by her favourite book: 1984 by George Orwell. It was after Russia occupied Crimea in 2014 that Iryna visited the tattoo artist. And she became involved in activism. Iryna headed up the Alliance of Medics, a trade union, and led the Facebook group, ‘Crimean Medicine without Cover’. She blogged, co-operated with the media, and highlighted corruption in Crimea under Russian occupation – especially the diversion of resources during the Covid pandemic, and the manipulation of statistics. She also assisted Crimean Tatars – a heavily persecuted minority (cases of Abdureshit Dzhepparov, Nariman Dzhelyal). Clearly, the Russian authorities noticed her citizen journalism – Iryna always enjoyed writing and communicating, and she was good at it.
But her first love, founded on her devotion to animals and the nurturing of many kittens and puppies as a child, was medicine. Iryna Danylovych wanted to become a doctor. However, her family was not well off, so Iryna attended college instead of university, and trained to be a nurse. Once she qualified, she was known for her calm compassion and professionalism, and would always be called in an emergency by her community in the village.
Trial and conviction
Iryna’s composure has no doubt held her in good stead in the face of violent coercion and threats to kill her by the FSB whilst in detention. On 11 May 2022, nearly two weeks after she was abducted, Iryna Danylovych’s whereabouts finally became known to her lawyer and loved ones. But it was not until she was brought in front of a judge at the end of August 2022 on the fabricated charge of possession of explosives, that her family were able to see her for the first time. It was a shock. As she looked out on proceedings from inside a secure glass box, it was clear to everyone that Iryna’s health had suffered – she appeared pale and drawn.
The legal case continued with the FSB claiming Iryna Danylovych had made what amounted to some kind of small bomb using an explosive substance and medical needles. When she bravely addressed the court for the last time, Iryna spoke of how she feared that after her abduction, she would become another victim of enforced disappearance in occupied Crimea. That she escaped the fate of others may well be because her case gained international attention. Still, this was a woman who was a thorn in the side of the Russian authorities. On 28 December 2022, Iryna Danylovych was convicted and sentenced to 7 years in prison.
Appeal and health alert
Iryna Danylovych did not give up. She remained defiant, going on a hunger strike to stop her ill-treatment, and appealing her conviction. Meanwhile, her health continued to deteriorate. Iryna had been complaining of excruciating earache – otitis is an infection of the ear that causes painful inflammation. As a nurse, she understood what was wrong with her, but was not given proper medical treatment. Instead, she was advised that once the nerve in her ear atrophied, she would become deaf – and that would be when the pain would end.
On 29 June 2023, the appeal was heard under the auspices of the Russian authorities in Crimea’s High Court. It took just minutes for the presiding judges to reduce Iryna’s sentence by a derisory one month.
Transfer to Russia
Following her appeal, Iryna was transported far from Crimea to Zelenokumsk in Russia. She is incarcerated in Penal Colony #7. Now deaf in one ear, she has still not received effective medical care. Her family, friends, and colleagues worry about her physical and mental health. They hope her spirit is not broken. Meanwhile, her dog Nika still trots to the bus stop in Feodosia, hoping to meet his beloved mistress as she steps off the bus. Instead, Iryna Danylovych has joined the dozens of political prisoners from occupied Crimea who are held unjustly, and far from home, by the Russian State.
Please join us in calling for the immediate release of Iryna Danylovych!
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