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Ukrainian Rights Activist Says Poland Has Barred Her From Travel In EU

Ukrainian activist Lyudmyla Kozlovska (left) and her husband Bartosz Kramek at an antigovernment protest in Warsaw last year.

Poland has leveraged its authority as a European Union member to ban a Ukrainian human rights activist from the EU's 26-member Schengen zone, saying she poses a security threat.

The activist, Lyudmyla Kozlovska, the head of the Open Dialog Foundation, and her Polish husband Bartosz Kramek told media on August 20 that they consider the move punishment for their open opposition to Poland's current government.

Kozlovska told AFP she is under "intense pressure," describing how her blacklisting by Polish security agencies prompted Belgian authorities to deport her to Kyiv last week after her arrival at Belgium's airport.

"The [Polish] foreign ministry wanted to change the management of our organization and to exclude me. They didn't succeed, and so they decided to physically remove me from EU territory."

Kozlovska, whose organization has offices in Warsaw, Brussels, and Kyiv, said her group's work has largely focused on promoting democracy in Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and Moldova.

The organization has also lobbied the EU to place sanctions on people close to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Since Poland's nationalist Law and Justice party came to power in 2015 and began reshaping the country's judiciary, the activist couple has also accused the Warsaw government of violating the rule of law.

Since making those accusations, Kozlovska said she has faced political pressure, with some ruling-party members and online trolls accusing her of ties to Russia.

"There is a smear campaign against us," she told the Associated Press. "If I am a Russian agent, why would I put people around Putin on a sanctions list? It's nonsense that I am some kind of agent."

On August 20, Poland's Internal Security Agency said its counterintelligence department has "serious doubts" about the financing of Kozlovska's foundation and said the EU travel ban resulted from the agency denying her application for a long-term residency permit.

Kozlovska was stopped on August 13 at the Brussels Zaventem airport after arriving from Kyiv, held overnight, and put on an early flight back to Kyiv the next morning.

Belgian authorities acted after Poland entered her in the Schengen Information System, a database aimed at ensuring security in Europe's passport-free Schengen Area.

The move not only prevents Kozlovska, 33, from traveling within the EU, it effectively forces her and Kramek, 32, to either live apart or for him to leave Poland.

They said they believe the Polish-requested travel ban is related to an open manifesto that Kramek published last year calling for civil disobedience against the government.

In his appeal, he wrote: "Mere protests and appeals are not enough; extraordinary and resolute actions based on the idea of civil disobedience must be taken immediately. Nobody wants Maidan or bloodshed in Poland, but the escalating tension makes us take almost any unimaginable scenario into account -- and be prepared for it."

Kramek said that was a reference to his support for the Euromaidan, a wave of pro-Western demonstrations and civil unrest in Ukraine that began in 2013 and led to the ouster of then-President Viktor Yanukovych, who fled to exile in Russia in 2014.

"I didn't call for any violence," Kramek told AP. "I was trying to explain that the Maidan was a peaceful revolution and that nobody was violent until the government tried to suppress the protesters using extreme violence."

Artur Lompart, director of the Foreign Ministry's press office, told the Associated Press in a written statement that names are put on the Schengen system "for reasons of defense, national security, or public order."

"The claims made by Mr. Kramek and his spouse that the refusal of entry into Schengen area for Ms. Kozlovska was a result of their antigovernment activities are hugely exaggerated," he said.

"Mr. Kramek openly publishes antigovernment texts, and he often actively participates in antigovernment manifestations or protests. Poland is a democratic country where there is a full freedom of opinion and expression of political views."

Many democracy activists nevertheless fear that the move is part of an effort to discredit opposition to the government after three years of frequent street protests.

Michal Szczerba, an opposition lawmaker, said Poland's authorities "are behaving like Russia, Kazakhstan, and Turkey."

Poland has absorbed nearly 2 million Ukrainians in recent years, and Olena Babakova, a Ukrainian freelance journalist based in Warsaw, said the government is sending a message to the Ukrainian community there through its treatment of Kozlovska.

"This is a warning for all foreigners who think that Poland is their home and that they can take an active part in public life," she said.

With reporting by AP and AFP