Lyudmyla Kozlovska

President of the Open Dialogue Foundation & Human rights defender from Ukraine

Lyudmyla Kozlovska, President of the Open Dialogue Foundation (ODF) and a human rights defender from Ukraine. ODF is known for its support for Ukraine during the Maidan Revolution, its response to Russian aggression in 2014, and its advocacy campaigns to protect political prisoners. ODF has been campaigning for the Rule of Law in Poland since 2017, winning several libel cases against top government officials and other court disputes with the country’s increasingly oppressive authorities. Despite the enforced transnational persecution with SIS II mechanisms and disconnection from the banking system (following the abuse of AML/CFT laws and state-sponsored smear campaign), ODF has managed to operate and raise emergency funds for Ukraine through the use of crypto-assets like Bitcoin and Tether. Ms. Kozlovska advocates for EU regulators to provide remedies and prevent misuse of AML/CFT laws and support civil society activists using Bitcoin and stablecoins to address financial exclusion, political oppression and the delivery of humanitarian aid.

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Testimonial of Lyudmyla Kozlovska.

ODF is a human rights NGO that was established in 2009 in Poland and has been headquartered in Brussels since 2018. ODF is known for its support for Ukraine during the Maidan Revolution, its response to Russian aggression in 2014, and its advocacy campaigns to protect political prisoners and refugees. Following the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022, ODF (via its Polish branch) launched a humanitarian aid delivery programme to provide protective equipment and other necessary resources to Ukraine’s soldiers and refugees, having as of September 2023 delivered €8.31 million worth of aid.  

In 2017, ODF took a stance in defence of the rule of law in Poland. This was met with a campaign of legal harassment and disinformation, conducted by the Law and Justice government, alongside the Kazakhstani and then-Moldovan regimes that ODF had criticised. The Law and Justice government orchestrated numerous attempts to shut down or paralyse ODF and organised a smear PR campaign against ODF in Poland and within international institutions such as the European Parliament, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe or the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly.

In 2018, the Law and Justice government in Poland declared Lyudmyla Kozlovska a threat to national security based on a classified report by special services and subsequently banned her from entering Poland, abusing the Schengen Information System (SIS) as a tool for political persecution.[1],[2]  In 2018, the Moldovan authorities, controlled by oligarch Vladimir Plahotniuc, accused Lyudmyla Kozlovska of financing the Moldovan opposition, of money laundering and of being a threat to national security. 

Both regimes have explored other existing mechanisms of international, European and bilateral legal cooperation that enabled transnational repression. Requests for international legal assistance were submitted to Belgian authorities by Poland and Moldova to obtain information, including banking data on ODF and members of its management.

In October 2022, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) passed a resolution urging to pay particular attention to “alerts entered by States found in systematic breach of the rule of law” and to “make sure that the data in SIS are not entered for political reasons”.  This was part of the significant progress which has been made condemning the political misuse of SIS, the abuse of INTERPOL notices and politically motivated extradition requests. 

ODF has won virtually all court disputes with the Polish authorities, including several libel cases (some proceedings launched by ODF against the authorities are still pending), and all the allegations against ODF have been proven false. [3],[4] These allegations have also been debunked by investigative reports in the press and via multiple analyses of the Foundation itself. Also, the Supreme Administrative Court in Warsaw ruled that Lyudmyla Kozlovska’s entry ban and subsequent expulsion from Poland, and temporarily, from the EU was arbitrary and unjustified, as the supposed evidence collected by the Polish security services “does not warrant the conclusion that Kozlovska poses a threat to state security”.

However, despite this, financial institutions have started to view ODF as a high-risk client since around 2019. As a result, ODF’s bank accounts in Belgium were closed, and the attacks on ODF also led to the closure of personal accounts and termination of all contracts of its executives (Lyudmyla Kozlovska, Bartosz Kramek, and Martin Mycielski) in Belgium and the UK, and in the case of Martin Mycielski to being placed on a permanent blacklist with BNP Paribas Fortis and KBC banks (as informed by them when trying to re-open accounts).  

Fake news and published allegations against ODF and its executives, including accusations of money laundering and security threats, have influenced business intelligence agencies and tools such as Refinitiv and Dun & Bradstreet services. In 2018, a Refinitiv World-Check Risk Intelligence (Refinitiv) report was produced (and later updated) consisting of propaganda pieces from Moldova and Poland, which included an investigation against Lyudmyla Kozlovska in Moldova and a fake Russian passport allegedly owned by her.

Although the investigation of the prosecution in Moldova was closed as politically-motivated in 2020 after the democratic opposition took power in the country, just as the country’s so-called parliamentary report into ODF was withdrawn in early 2023, [5],[6] the banking system still considers the allegations to be true.

In the years 2019-2021, two Belgian banks, KBC and BNP Paribas Fortis, terminated the contracts with ODF and placed it on their blacklists, while virtually all other banks in Belgium (ING, Belfius, Beobank, Crelan, Keytrade, Argenta, AXA, Aion) rejected its application. Additionally, personal accounts of ODF’s associates were closed by KBC, BNP Paribas Fortis and ING, while KBC and BNP Paribas Fortis also closed accounts of an affiliated company, KL Solutions SRL (owned by Lyudmyla Kozlovska and Bartosz Kramek). In 2020, the personal accounts of Lyudmyla Kozlovska, Bartosz Kramek,  two other ODF associates and the corporate account of KL Solutions, were all closed by the UK-based Revolut. None of the banks provided reasons for these decisions, as they are not required to do so.

In 2022, the money transfer platform Wise closed ODF’s account, presumably due to ODF’s activities in support of Ukraine, which raised concerns about associations with the military conflict there. 

Since then, ODF has been unable to open an account with other Belgian or foreign banks (having applied in banks in Poland, Estonia and Malta), effectively rendering ODF de-banked. Despite ODF’s efforts to find legal remedy (as reported below), no effective solution has been found in Belgium. 

According to the European Banking Authority (EBA), the practice of de-banking as the result of de-risking higher-risk clients runs contrary to the provisions of Directive 2015/849 of 20 May 2015 on the prevention of the use of the financial system for the purpose of money laundering or terrorist financing.

Detailed information on the timeline for de-banking ODF in Belgium can be found in the annex below.

ANNEX 1

Timeline of ODF’s de-banking in Belgium

On 30 August 2021, BNP confirmed the termination of the business relationship with ODF and explained that it did not wish to disclose or discuss its customer acceptance policy and that its decisions were purely discretionary. 

On 10 September 2021, BNP informed Ms. Kozlovska of the unilateral closure of her account in accordance with Article 14 of the General Terms and Conditions of BNP Paribas Fortis Bank.

On 23 September 2021, the directors of ODF wrote to the International Cooperation Unit of the Brussels Public Prosecutor’s Office to inform them of their fear of being targeted by legal assistance requests on Belgian soil by the Polish authorities. 

On 28 September 2021, ODF filed a complaint with the Financial Ombudsman’s office concerning its debanking. The complaint referred to the possible political nature of the prosecution in Poland and the fact that unilateral account closure may constitute a practice contrary to the purpose of Directive 2015/849. 

On 29 September 2021, one of ODF’s board members, Martin Mycielski, filed a similar complaint regarding the closure of his personal accounts. 

On 29 September 2021, ODF asked BNP to grant it access to the basic banking service provided for in Article VII.59/4 § 1 of the Economic Law Code as the legal conditions for access to such a service are met. Indeed, ODF did not appear to be able to find a banking institution willing to give it access to basic banking services (ING refused to open an account on 23 November 2018; KBC unilaterally decided to close the bank account in January 2021, while BNP terminated its contract on 10 August 2021). Following this last closure, ODF applied to every other bank offering services to non-corporate clients in Belgium, including Belfius, Beobank, Crelan, Keytrade, Argenta, AXA and Aion, but was informed that it would not be possible to open an account with any of them.

On 1 October 2021, the Financial Ombudsman declared ODF’s complaint inadmissible, as it was a dispute between legal entities, and it was not competent to deal with it (having a mandate to interfere only when an individual is concerned). On the same day, the Ombudsman acknowledged receipt of Martin Mycielski’s complaint and put it under review. 

On 5 October 2021, BNP informed Bartosz Kramek of the unilateral closure of his account in accordance with Article 14 of the Bank’s General Terms and Conditions. 

On 15 October 2021, ODF reminded BNP Bank that under Article VII.59/4. § 3 of the Code of Economic Law, a refusal to provide basic banking services to a company must be explicitly and adequately justified in writing without delay and at the latest within ten working days of receipt of the request. In the absence of a response within this legal deadline, ODF requests BNP to open this basic service promptly.

On 18 October 2021, the Financial Ombudsman issued an opinion on a complaint filed personally by one of ODF’s executives, stating that he is not authorised to make a decision on the closure of ODF’s current account. The Ombudsman acknowledged that ODF had applied for access to the basic banking service for companies, which was established in the law of 8 November 2020, but has yet to be fully implemented due to the absence of implementing acts. Given this legal gap, the Ombudsman requested that the bank extend the notice period until the legislation on basic banking services becomes fully effective. However, the bank only agreed to extend the notice period until 9 November 2021 and did not respond to the Ombudsman’s proposal.

Regarding the personal accounts of board members, the Ombudsman’s role was limited to verifying the terms and conditions prescribed by Article 14 of BNP’s General Terms and Conditions. The Ombudsman confirmed that these procedures had been complied with. However, the Ombudsman understands ODF’s point of view, supported by the nearly simultaneous closure of multiple accounts, but acknowledged that he does not have the authority to compel the banks to provide reasons for their decisions, which would enable him to take a position on the matter.

On 19 October 2021, BNP notified ODF of its refusal to provide a basic banking service. The bank explained that it had not responded earlier to the request for access to the basic service because of the ongoing proceedings with the Ombudsman. BNP then explains that its policy is not to offer such a service unless it is obliged to do so by designation pursuant to Article VII.59/4. § 3 of the Economic Law Code. 

Faced with the impossibility of establishing a dialogue with BNP, the Ombudsman’s inability to obtain acceptance of a temporary solution for maintaining access to banking services, and the subsequent refusals of other banks, ODF filed a lawsuit against BNP in November 2021. 

On 18 November 2021 AXA Bank in Belgium refused to open bank accounts to ODF  “after examination of the request by AXA’s head office” and because “the AXA Bank “Client acceptance policy” committee does not wish to enter into a client relationship” with ODF: “The decision to refuse a person, an organisation or a company is decided unilaterally by the head office of AXA and is irrevocable; there is no appeal against this possible and our agency (branch) has no say in this. The headquarters of AXA does not motivate this decision and therefore does not explain it”. In prior months, similar refusals with even less information were received in writing or by phone from Belfius, Beobank, Crelan, Keytrade, Argenta and Aion banks. 

On 3 February 2022 the Brussels Court rejected ODF’s lawsuit against BNP, as it did not find sufficient grounds to regard it as “emergency” (which is one of the established conditions to involve the court) and considered actions taken by ODF to find an alternative to the closed account as non-exhaustive. Also, concerning the basic bank service, the courts considered the law as not yet applicable. Despite being fully deprived of access to a bank account and being financially excluded, ODF was ordered by a court to pay compensation to BNP in the amount of 1,560 euros.

ANNEX 2

In 2018, Refinitiv World-Check Risk Intelligence database produced this highly inaccurate report (it was updated in 2020), consisting of propaganda pieces from Moldova and Poland, which included a politically motivated investigation against Lyudmyla Kozlovska in Moldova and fake Russian and Moldova passports allegedly owned by her. World-Check Risk Intelligence has been used and trusted by the world’s biggest companies for over two decades. Below are screenshots from World-Check Risk Intelligence:

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