WARSAW, POLAND - Poland has used its powers as a European Union member to ban a human rights Ukrainian activist from all 26 countries in Europe's Schengen area, saying she poses a security threat following allegations that she works for Russian interests.
Some government critics, however, have questioned whether the government is misusing the system to intimidate its opponents.
The activist, Lyudmyla Kozlovska, and her Polish husband Bartosz Kramek told The Associated Press they consider the move punishment for their open opposition to Poland's conservative, nationalist government.
Kozlovska, who runs an organization with offices in Warsaw, Brussels and Kiev, the Open Dialog Foundation, said her group's work has largely focused on promoting democracy in Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Moldova. One effort, she said, involved lobbying the EU to place sanctions on people close to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
But after the conservative nationalist Law and Justice party won power in Poland in 2015 and began reshaping the country's judiciary, the pair also started to accuse that government of violating the rule of law. Kozlovska said they began to face political pressure and that some ruling-party members and online trolls accused her of ties to Russia.
"There is a smear campaign against us," she said. "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 Monday, the Internal Security Agency, said its counterintelligence department had "serious doubts" about the financing of her foundation and that the ban resulted from the agency denying an application by her for a long-term residency permit.
Kozlovska was stopped Aug. 13 at the Brussels Zaventem airport after arriving from Kiev, held overnight and put on an early flight back to Kiev 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 effectively forces Kozlovska, 33, and Kramek, 32, to either live apart or for him to leave Poland. They spoke to the AP from Kiev, where he joined her last week, though he said he plans to be in Warsaw for a street demonstration Thursday in her support.
They said they believe the Polish-requested 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.
"I didn't call for any violence," Kramek said. "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 AP 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 anti-government activities are hugely exaggerated," he said.
"Mr. Kramek openly publishes anti-government texts and he often actively participates in anti-government manifestations or protests. Poland is a democratic country where there is a full freedom of opinion and expression of political views."
Some political activists and members of the Ukrainian community expressed doubts to the AP about the legitimacy of Kozlovska and her foundation. Some nonetheless criticize the government for a lack of transparency and say they fear the move could be an effort to discredit the 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."
Earlier this year, three members of the European Parliament from the Polish ruling party failed in their bid to have Kozlovska denied access to the EU legislature.
One of them, Kosma Zlotowski, said in his request that Kozlovska was granted a Russian passport after the annexation of Crimea.
"Moreover, the Foundation and its sponsors are suspected of having connections with Russia, including with entities connected with the Russian Navy. ... Such connections should raise certain concern," Zlotowski continued.
The couple denied those allegations.
Poland has absorbed nearly 2 million Ukrainians in recent years. Tom Junes, a historian with the Human and Social Studies Foundation Sofia who researches protest movements and disinformation in Eastern Europe, believes that context is essential to understanding Kozvlovska's case.
The deportation makes the point that anybody who becomes engaged in activism against the current government in Poland could be banned not only from Poland but also from the EU, Junes said.
Olena Babakova, a Ukrainian freelance journalist based in Warsaw, agreed. "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.