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Piecing together Ukraine's shredded 'corruption library'

© 2014 AFP

Dario THUBURN

10 March 2014

With a pile of shredded documents in a corner, dozens of volunteers in a Kiev office are hard at work on the frontlines of journalism -- piecing together an ousted president's web of corruption.

Like schoolchildren making collages, students, office workers and retirees patiently glue the scraps onto coloured sheets of paper which are then carefully numbered, scanned and filed away.

From lavish spending of public funds by former leader Viktor Yanukovych for his villas to hints of sinister secrets, the hoard of papers left behind in the chaotic final hours of his rule is already painting a disturbing picture.

The hope is that with the help of sophisticated software like "Unshredder" that can piece together scraps of files, there will be much more in the months and years to come that could aid prosecutions and the repatriation of stolen assets.

"It makes me mad! We could have been rich. This money is ours," said Lena Svitovets, a former real estate agent who lost her job because of Ukraine's economic crisis, holding back tears as she rifled through shredded receipts.

Sergiy Sushytskiy, a brand manager, said: "It's important to understand what our president and the criminals around him did. They did so much harm to the state."

- 'Clean-up operation' -

Svitovets and Sushytskiy were among 60 volunteers methodically making their way through 30 bin bags seized by activists from the offices of mystery oligarch Sergiy Kurchenko, a member of Yanukovych's inner circle -- known as "the family".

The 28-year-old owner of Forbes Ukraine magazine and the Metalist Kharkiv football team, Kurchenko's name is on an EU sanctions list and has been placed under investigation for embezzlement in the energy sector by the new authorities in Kiev.

The document sleuths in Kiev have already made their way through bags of documents from Yanukovych's luxurious residence outside Kiev, which were thrown into a moat, shredded or simply ripped by hand in a last-minute rush.

One document that survived was the notebook of the head of Yanukovych's personal security detail Kostyantyn Kobzar, which has now been published along with other revelations on the newly-created website YanukovychLeaks.org.

The jumble of scribbles contain the president's daily agenda but also talk about monitoring journalists publishing stories about his corruption.

One of them was Tetyana Chornovil, who was badly beaten on December 25 in an incident that confirmed the ruthlessness of the Yanukovych regime in the eyes of many protesters.

An undated section of the notebook shows that Chornovil -- who is now head of a government anti-corruption committee -- was being tracked through her phone.

The notebook contains the phrases: "Chornovil went to Maidan", followed by "23:10 turned off her phone". "23:50 turned it on at Khreshchatyk str."

Afterwards: "23:50 clean-up operation started" and "01:00 done (clean)".

- 'Real adrenaline' -

Working out exactly what this and other fragments of the dark secrets of the Yanukovych years mean is what motivates Irina Pogorzhelska, an 18th century fashion historian who is overseeing the teams gluing shredded documents.

"What can I say? I like archives!" said the jovial researcher as she numbered documents.

"For me it's like a detective novel. I feel real adrenaline. I know what these documents mean," said Pogorzhelska, who like many volunteers also took part in the three months of demonstrations in Kiev that eventually led to the ouster of Yanukovych.

"Even though we live in Kiev, politics feel far away. But here everyone feels a part of it," she said, holding up drawings she has put together like puzzles showing architect's plans for yet another opulent Yanukovych villa.

Following the money lavished on Yanukovych's main residence -- clearly way above his official salary of $115,000 -- shows frivolous spending but also hugely inflated payments that could point to other types of fraud.

"We are still working but we are finding a lot of details on how much was being spent on the gardens, on the interior design. We found a toilet paper holder that cost $400,000 (280,000 euros)!" she said.

These are heady times for investigative journalists who worked for years to try to uncover corruption under Yanukovych and were dragged through the courts.

"It's something unbelievable. For journalists, it's a very rare opportunity to have access to files like this," said Sergiy Leschenko, an editor at the online news site Ukrainska Pravda, known for its investigations against Yanukovych.

Leschenko said the documents were like a "library of corruption" and were also a guarantee in case prosecutors try to hush up investigations -- a concern even in post-revolutionary Ukraine, where official cover-ups are common.

"If the prosecutor's office does not want to investigate this saying there is no proof of corruption, you can go online and see," said the editor.

Fellow journalist Denys Begus, who put out the request for volunteers to help sort through the scraps from Kurchenko's office, said that realistically only 20 percent of their content will ever be recovered.

"It might take us a month or a year or two years but I think the value of the documents is worth the wait," he said.