British aid worker in Syria held 'incommunicado' after abduction

Sharif’s family and friends say armed group Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham has not provided official charges for his arrest.

More than two weeks since a British aid worker living in Syria’s opposition-held Idlib province was arrested by a dominant armed group, his exact whereabouts and health condition remain unknown.

Tauqir Sharif, 33, was taken last month by Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), an al-Qaeda-linked group and United Nations-designated “terrorist” organisation that has been in control of the last rebel-held bastion in Syria since 2019.

Sharif, also known as Tox, from east London, has been working on humanitarian projects in Syria since 2012. He was arrested on June 22 from`his family home in the town of Atmeh along the Syria-Turkey border, where he lives with his wife Racquell Hayden-Best and their four children.

“We have no idea where he’s being held. All we know is that he’s in solitary confinement,” Hayden-Best, who said she was allowed to see her husband a single time since he was taken away, told Al Jazeera.

“He [Sharif] looked tired and had clearly lost weight. He still had a wound on his head from when he was beaten during his arrest,” she explained after visiting him more than a week ago at a location chosen by HTS, different from where he was being held.

Hayden-Best added she has since been denied a second visit or any information about her husband.

‘Sowing sedition’

In a media statement issued after Sharif’s detention, HTS said although the group recognised his work and support for the Syrian people since 2012, Sharif’s arrest resulted from “dangerous allegations made against him that could not be ignored”, said HTS’s media relations manager Taqi al-Deen Omar.

“These allegations relate to mismanagement of humanitarian funds and its use towards projects that sow sedition and division,” said Omar. He added Sharif would be held until an investigation was completed.

But according to Moazzam Begg, outreach director of CAGE, a London-based campaign group working on Sharif’s case, the allegations remain unclear.

“Taquir remains incommunicado in a secret location and the family has been asking for something in writing,” Begg, who has known Sharif since 2012, told Al Jazeera.

“But there have been no official documents by HTS to clarify the nature of the allegations against Taquir, nor the process that will be undertaken to investigate them.

“Judges have not issued anything that suggests they even know who ordered or sanctioned the arrest. This seems to show the arrest was done purely by HTS’s security apparatus,” he added, highlighting he was deeply concerned Sharif would not have access to a fair hearing and due process.

HTS crackdown

Idlib has been the target of a fierce battle for control since Syrian government forces launched a Russian-backed offensive to regain control of the opposition bastion in late 2019.

The offensive left one million people displaced and more than 500 civilians dead before Moscow and Ankara brokered a truce in early March. Idlib continues to suffer a wide-scale humanitarian crisis. 

In an investigation on Tuesday, the UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria said war crimes were committed by both pro-government forces and HTS during the battle for Idlib. It said Syrian and Russian forces as well as HTS “indiscriminately shelled densely populated civilian areas, spreading terror amongst civilians living in government-held areas”.

“[HTS] detained, tortured and executed civilians expressing dissenting opinions, including journalists, confirming reports that in a crackdown on other factions, HTS had arrested dozens of figures in Idlib over the past few months, accusing them of causing division and undermining the objectives of the 2011 revolution,” the commission said.

‘Repeated threats’

But according to Begg, the reason behind Sharif’s arrest may be related to his refusal to transfer some aid funds to HTS.

“If the [HTS] allegations are true, they are accusing him of not giving them the money he gets,” said Begg, adding Sharif “has faced repeated threats”.

“Armed groups, rebels and bandits have tried to come and take over his projects and funds,” he added.

Although Sharif has denied affiliation with any armed groups in Syria, he was stripped of his British citizenship in 2017 after being assessed by the UK Home Office to be “aligned with an al-Qaeda-aligned group”.

Commenting on the sequence of events, Begg said: “The irony is that the only group that is aligned to al-Qaeda is HTS.”

Bilal Abdul Kareem, a journalist in Syria since 2012 and close friend of Sharif, told Al Jazeera Sharif’s detention by HTS had not come as a surprise. 

“There is a nasty history between them [HTS and Sharif],” said Abdul Kareem, recalling an incident last year where he alleged armed HTS members occupied a block of flats that Sharif had built for orphans and widows.

Although the flats were eventually returned to Sharif, Abdul Kareem said the issue was not easily resolved.

“Given this nasty history between the two, HTS has done this [detained Sharif] to be spiteful,” said Abdul Kareem.

Calls for release

Since Sharif’s arrest, dozens of residents of Atmeh, including many widows and orphans who receive aid provided by Sharif’s Live Updates from Syria aid organisation, held demonstrations demanding his release.

Sharif, one of the most well-known foreign aid workers in Syria, focuses on providing relief for internally displaced women and children in Atmeh’s sprawling camps. He also runs schools, housing projects, and food aid programmes, according to his wife. 

Abdul Kareem, who said he was concerned for his friend’s health and wellbeing, called on HTS to either formally charge or release him.

“If HTS want the respect of a government, then they can’t act like a gang. They can’t imprison someone based on hearsay,” he told Al Jazeera.

In an appeal to HTS, Sharif’s wife Hayden-Best said: “I’m asking HTS to look into this case. I do not believe anyone else can help.”

Additional reporting by Mohamed Karkas in Idlib

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