The ordeal of a British-born aid worker in Syria who was taken by members of a Sunni Islamist militant group in rebel-held Idlib took another twist on Tuesday when he confronted the man who he says had interrogated and tortured him in prison. During the dramatic encounter in a courtroom, Tauqir Sharif from Walthamstow in East London was rearrested and his British wife Racquell Hayden-Best had a gun pointed at her.
Hayden-Best witnessed part of the drama in Sarmada as she waited while Sharif — known to his friends as Tox — was inside registering his lawyer's name for the forthcoming trial. Sharif, 31, who lives and works in the north-west Syrian city which has a large community of British humanitarian workers, was also asking for the details of the charges he faces to be put in writing.
Last night, his wife gave an account of what happened to OGN News journalist Bilal Abdul Kareem. She explained that her husband had been tortured during the 24 days he was held by the rebel group Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS) which controls the last remaining free province in the war-torn country.
Sharif was taken by a group of masked, armed men last month and was initially feared to have been kidnapped, as reported in MEMO. It transpired later that the aid worker had upset members of the HTS leadership which prompted the raid on his home at Atmeh, near the Turkish border. During yesterday's meeting, while submitting essential paperwork to the court Sharif says that he recognised a man in the building who had tortured him. His wife said that because his bail conditions prevented him from speaking to the media, Sharif had until then remained silent about being brutalised.
"He hasn't mentioned this since he's been released because of his bail conditions," she explained. "This is the time now, we have to make this public because right now he has been rearrested and taken by the man who tortured him," Hayden-Best added that her husband recognised the man through a scar on his hand. The man denied being the torturer but when Sharif took his photograph a row developed.
"That person knows what he did to him [Sharif]. We don't know what is happening to him right now. When I saw my husband I've never seen him look like that." The argument spilled out of the court and onto the street where Hayden-Best was. She said that the HTS member then took out his gun and at one stage pointed it directly at her.
"I saw the gun and he [Sharif] told me to get in the car and go home." She added that she was driven off at speed leaving her husband with his hands in the air shouting, "I am not scared." Half an hour later she was told that he had been rearrested.
"He was complying with the system and did nothing that was against HTS orders. There's a lot of things in his case that he's not allowed to talk about because of restrictions placed upon him. But now that this has happened it is public that he was tortured. He can't say it but I will now say it, because I am worried about my husband and what is happening inside the prison right now," she said on Tuesday night.
READ: Journalist offers to intercede in kidnapping of British-born aid worker in Syria
News of the torture will come as a shock to Sharif's supporters in both Syria and Britain who were reassured publicly several times of his wellbeing and good health. Details of the exact nature of the torture have yet to be released or acknowledged by either Sharif's family or HTS.
Although the HTS authorities have yet to issue any written charges, Sharif and his lawyer went to Sarmada to prepare for the trial. During what should have been an informal meeting, the argument developed and escalated out onto the street.
After contacting the HTS media relations office, this response was sent to me: "The subject and the reason are being ascertained, and after a while the answer will arrive, God willing."
Delivering aid in Syria is fraught with difficulties, but those humanitarian workers operating on the ground are usually allowed by HTS to move about freely. Nevertheless, occasional clashes between charities and rebel groups operating in the area have been reported, making the delivery of humanitarian aid even more precarious than in most war zones.
Tauqir Sharif and his British wife Racquell Hayden-Best have been in Syria since 2012 when he acted as the head of logistics for the first aid convoys from Britain to the country, using ambulances to take in food and medical supplies. He stayed behind to set up makeshift schools and launch his own aid organisation.
He is now a well-known figure among British charities operating in Syria and is hugely popular on the ground with local Syrians.
Using social networks, television fundraisers, and other crowdfunding appeals, Sharif has raised tens of thousands of pounds over the years for scores of charitable projects in Idlib. When he was arrested last month, hundreds of widows and orphans poured onto the streets in protest, demanding his release. The popularity of the aid worker, according to some people on the ground in Syria, caught the rebel group by surprise.
His arrest, forthcoming trial, and yesterday's rearrest represent a series of setbacks for Tox Sharif, not least because his British citizenship has been revoked and his eldest daughter was refused a passport herself back in May 2017. He has been highly critical of the British government's actions and previously urged the Home Office to review its revocation policy for all aid workers engaged in humanitarian projects in war and conflict zones.
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