Date of Birth: November 4, 1971
Belarus, Novopolotsk, School No. 3, Class of 1989
Arrested: August 11, 2023
Charges: Incitement to actions aimed at undermining the national security of the Republic of Belarus
Verdict: Verdict has not been issued yet; currently held in Detention Center No. 2 (SIZO-2).
Arrest and remand prison for Olga Britikova
The leader of the independent trade union, Olga Britikova, was arrested on August 11, 2023, and shortly thereafter placed in detention. Prosecutors have charged her with Article 361 of the Criminal Code, “Incitement to actions aimed at undermining the national security of the Republic of Belarus”.
Currently, Olga Britikova is being prosecuted under Article 361 Part 1 of the Criminal Code, which accuses her of publicly calling for the seizure of state power, forcibly changing the constitutional order of the Republic of Belarus, undermining the state, committing acts of terrorism or sabotage, taking actions aimed at violating the territorial integrity of the Republic of Belarus, or engaging in other activities that pose a threat to the national security of the Republic of Belarus, including the application of restrictive measures (sanctions) against the Republic of Belarus.
According to a number of human rights defenders, the charges brought against Britikova are quite severe, making it highly unlikely that her measure of restraint will be commuted to house arrest or recognizance not to leave. Furthermore, charges under Article 361 of the Criminal Code of the Republic of Belarus usually result in an almost automatic conviction, which carries a substantial prison sentence.
Olga Britikova’s harsh persecution is also significantly influenced by the fact that, at the height of the protests on 14 August, she publicly cornered Ivan Tertel with her questions. At the time, this official was the Chairman of the State Control Committee. Now Ivan Tertel heads the State Security Committee, one of the country’s main punitive bodies.
Persecution for protest activity
Before 2020, Olga Britikova had never been involved in political activities. Her whole life was connected with the “Naftan” enterprise: her parents were worked there, and her mother was even a veteran of the company. Olga completed her education at two universities. First, she graduated from the Polotsk State University with a degree in civil engineering, and then from the Belarusian State Economic University with a degree in economics. In 1994, after completing her studies, she joined the joint venture between Naftan and the Austrian company. A decade later, at the age of 33, Olga Britikova started working directly for “Naftan”.
By the time the protests began in 2020, Britikova had already worked for 16 years at “Naftan” in Novopolotsk. In her last years at the enterprise, she was the head of Naftan’s petroleum product sales department and was paid a very high salary by Belarusian standards: 4,000 Belarusian rubles (equivalent to about $2,000).
Unexpectedly, Olga Britikova decided to become an observer for the 2020 presidential elections. However, she was quickly stripped of her accreditation, thus preventing her from carrying out her duties as an observer. On August 14, 2020, when “Naftan” workers took part in a protest against the election fraud on August 14, 2020, Olga joined them and became part of the protest movement. On August 17, 2020, it was Olga who voiced the demands of the “Naftan” collective at a meeting of the workers with the then Chairman of the State Control Committee, Ivan Tertel.
At that time, representatives of the enterprise demanded an investigation into the violence by the security forces and the organization of new presidential elections. Ivan Tertel, in his turn, tried to convince the gathered crowd that “the situation in the country is challenging, and if we don’t calm down, it could turn into a scenario similar to Ukraine“.
A few days later, upon realizing that their demands were not being met, Naftan employees began submitting mass applications to leave the state-affiliated trade unions and join the independent trade union. During this period, Olga Britikova also became a member of the independent trade union.
On December 3, 2020, Britikova was dismissed from the enterprise. The order for her dismissal was issued with the wording “due to the deprivation of access to state secrets”. In fact, Olga’s contract stipulated that she had access to classified information. It was some financial information that Olga occasionally saw, but she did not work with it on a daily basis.
Based on a submission from the KGB (where the relevant document allegedly originated), Olga Britikova had her access to state secrets revoked on the grounds of being deemed “unreliable”. According to the law, Britikova should have been transferred to a position that did not require such access. Nevertheless, Olga was simply dismissed.
Britikova appealed her dismissal in court. Initially, the court requested the document confirming Olga’s deprivation of access to state secrets. The lawyer representing “Naftan” was unable to provide this document. Subsequently, during the next hearing, the judge simply stated, “Yes, I’ve seen that document, but, Olga, I can’t show it to you.”
After her dismissal from “Naftan” in January 2021, Olga Britikova was elected as the Сhairperson of the independent trade union at the “Naftan” enterprise. She continued to advocate for workers’ rights, handle legal matters, and manage paperwork. During this period, the pressure on the independent trade union and on her personally intensified. Many colleagues suggested that she should leave the country, but Olga was unwilling to do so. She firmly stated, “I want to make it clear that I had no intention of leaving, and I have no intention of leaving. It may become a necessary measure, but I’m not considering it at the moment. Belarus is my homeland, and I want to live and work here. I believe it’s possible.”
A series of searches, arrests and imprisonments
Olga Britikova, the Chairwoman of the Belarusian Independent Trade Union at the OJSC “Naftan”, faced personal persecution for the first time in September 2021. At that time, the KGB officers searched Britikova’s appartment in connection with a “labour movement” case. This initiative was recognized as extremist, which led to the opening of a criminal case on charges of “incitement to actions aimed at undermining national security”.
However, Olga had no connections to the “labor movement”. A search was conducted at her apartment, her car was inspected, and Britikova was brought in for questioning, but later released. Nevertheless, in the same autumn, her only son was conscripted into the military.
Olga Britikova was first detained on February 27, 2022, the day of the referendum on amendments to the Constitution. According to media reports, she was arrested at a polling station for photographing a ballot paper. However, according to witnesses, Olga did not even manage to reach the polling station. As soon as she left her house, she was detained just outside the entrance.
A veritable legal conveyor belt of cases against Britikova was then set in motion. First, Olga received 15 days of arrest for a video against the war, followed by another 15-day sentence for wearing an anti-war slogan “No to War” on her jacket. Immediately afterwards, Olga was sentenced to another 15 days for writing “No to War” on pieces of paper and displaying them in the windows of her flat (according to human rights activists, she mentioned in court that the prayers were written on the back of those pieces).
Finally, on April 13, 2022, Britikova was sentenced to another 15 days, this time for an anti-war post on the social media platform Instagram. On April 27, Olga was supposed to be released, but instead, she was brought to trial again, this time allegedly for picketing, and she was given another 15-day arrest. She served almost all of these sentences in the detention center in the city of Ushachi (only five days in the Novopolotsk detention center).
In May 2022, Britikova was released after 75 days of uninterrupted detention. By this time, the primary cell of the trade union led by Olga had been virtually dismantled by the authorities, with its membership reduced to zero.
Olga Britikova was arrested again on November 1, 2022, again under an administrative article. Two days later, the court found her guilty of distributing “extremist materials” and sentenced her to 15-day imprisonment. On November 11, she was again sentenced to 15 days for an “unauthorized picket”. The reason for the proceedings was a drawing with the words “No to War” that Olga had posted on social media. On November 21, 2022, it was reported that Olga had been transferred to a detention centre in Vitebsk.
From November 8, 2022, while in detention, Olga declared a hunger strike. She informed about this by submitting a statement addressed to the detention centre’s head. The reason for this action was the violation of her rights and the refusal of the detention centre staff to pass on parcels from her relatives.
In total, in 2022, Olga Britikova spent 105 days behind bars.
2023: The Story of the latest arrest
On August 11, 2023, officers of the Belarusian OMON (Mobile Special Forces) detained Olga Britikova, an activist and former leader of the Belarusian Independent Trade Union at OJSC “Naftan”, as well as Alexander Kukharyonak, an activist of the Naftan strike committee. Alexander Kukharyonak was one of the first to announce a strike at the enterprise in 2020. Alexander’s wife was also arrested. The Kukharyonak family has two minor children. It’s possible that Alexander’s wife was released shortly afterwards, possibly due to having underage children.
A few days later, human rights defenders learned about new circumstances surrounding the detention of Britikova and Kukharyonak. The activists were apprehended by OMON officers in the village of Rositsa in the Verkhnedvinsk district. Searches were conducted at Kukharyonak’s apartment in Novopolotsk, at his parents’ apartment in Novopolotsk, as well as in the village of Rositsa.
Soon, a new wave of repression swept through the Novopolotsk enterprises “Naftan” and “Polimir”. In particular, on September 6, 2023, law enforcement officers visited the design and engineering bureau of “Polimir”. They took away the employees from their workplaces. After interrogations and searches, several people did not return to work the next day. Among those detained were employees from both the design and engineering bureau and other departments.