Jailed Belarusian activist says this year the hardest and happiest of her life

·2 min read
FILE PHOTO: Representatives of the Coordination Council for members of the Belarusian opposition attend a news conference in Minsk

KYIV (Reuters) - The jailed Belarusian activist Maria Kolesnikova, who became a face of anti-government protests, said on Thursday this year has been the hardest and happiest of her life, as the country's opposition said she could face 12 years imprisonment.

Kolesnikova has been in prison since September, when she tore up her passport in a standoff with Belarusian security forces who were trying to deport her from the country at the border with Ukraine, according to her and two allies who were with her.

"I don't regret my decision for a second, even now," Kolesnikova, 39, said in a letter that was published on Wednesday on her Facebook page.

"This year turned out to be the hardest and happiest in my life. I understand how strange it sounds from a person in prison. But I gained much more than I lost: a unique experience, incredible drive, a lot of new knowledge and skills... I found inner freedom and happiness to be myself in any situation."

The opposition said in a statement she faces 12 years in prison on charges of extremism and trying to seize power.

The Investigative Committee of Belarus, the law enforcement body charged with prosecuting major crimes, was not available for comment.

Kolesnikova came to prominence heading the election campaign of Viktor Babariko, a former banker who challenged veteran President Alexander Lukashenko in an election last August that opposition protesters say was rigged.

When Babariko was arrested, Kolesnikova joined forces with opposition figure Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who fled to Lithuania after the election and has campaigned against Lukashenko from exile ever since.

In power since 1994, Lukashenko launched a violent crackdown last year against the street protests. Dozens of people have been sentenced in recent months for taking part in the protests.

Babariko, the former head of Belgazprombank, faces up to 15 years in prison on corruption charges that his team says were fabricated.

The European Union is readying a fourth round of sanctions against senior Belarus officials in response to the ongoing crackdown.

(Editing by Matthias Williams and Alexandra Hudson)

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