WASHINGTON -- Large amounts of computer equipment from Dell have been sold to the Syrian government through a Dubai-based distributor despite strict trade sanctions intended to ban the selling of technology to the regime, according to documents obtained by The New York Times.
The disclosure of the computer sales is the latest example of how the Syrian government has managed to acquire technology, some of which is used to censor Internet activity and track opponents of the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad.
According to internal company e-mails, cash transfer statements, sales receipts and shipping documents, the computer equipment was sold by BDL Gulf, which is based in Saudi Arabia and is a large distributor of computer equipment in the Middle East. It is an authorized dealer for Dell in the Middle East and Africa, and is also a reseller for other computer brands, including Samsung and Acer.
BDL sold the equipment to Anas Hasoon Trading, a Damascus-based company with contracts to provide computers to the Syrian government, according to billings records and e-mail exchanges between the companies.
Jess Blackburn, a spokesman for Dell in Round Rock, Tex., confirmed that BDL was a authorized reseller. He said the company was recently made aware of a possible shipment of Dell equipment to Syria by an anonymous source.
"We are investigating an allegation we received recently that BDL was involved in a possible transaction involving Syria," Mr. Blackburn said in a statement. "Dell requires its resellers to follow U.S. trade requirements, just as Dell does. Resellers of Dell products and services are contractually prohibited from selling or shipping any technology to a customer in a restricted country."
The United States has barred the sales of most American-made goods to Syria for nearly a decade and has repeatedly tightened sanctions against the government. An executive order by President Obama, dated April 22, 2012, specifically addresses the sale of computer technology to Syria, barring Americans from helping the Iranian and Syrian governments engage in human rights abuses, including monitoring and tracking of dissidents.
United States officials charged with enforcing sanctions against Syria would not comment on the possible violation of export sanction laws, but did say that it was illegal to export technology to Syria unless the sale would promote the free flow of information between the Syrian people and the outside world.
Asked about the evidence of shipments to Syria, a manager at BDL said the company had hundreds of customers and did not keep track of their location.
"We cannot know if they are from Pakistan, Egypt or Morocco; we just sell in Dubai," said RamaNarayan Singh, who is listed as BDL's sales manager for the United Arab Emirates, Africa and Iran. "I'm just an employee doing my duty. I don't know if a company is from Syria."
But e-mails between Mr. Singh and a representative from Anas Hasoon Trading show that the Syrian company made it clear to him that it was working on behalf of the Assad government. Mr. Singh signed several invoices that listed a Syrian address for the trading company. Mr. Singh said he did not recall the e-mails or the invoices.
The records, which were provided to The Times by an individual who was briefed on the transactions, showed that BDL sold hundreds of laptops, tablets and desktop computers to the Syrian company.
In e-mails sent between Mr. Singh and Yahya Rifai, who was listed a purchasing manager for the Anas Hasoon Trading company, Mr. Rifai mentioned several times that he was working to buy the computers for the Syrian government.
The companies dealt mainly in cash, records showed, after transfers from Syrian banks to banks in Dubai were rejected because of financial sanctions against the country.
In an e-mail to Mr. Singh dated Sept. 2, 2012, Mr. Rifai wrote about his difficulties in using bank transfers to pay for the computers because of the sanctions.
"Dear Ram, my problem is how to get money from Syria to you? As you know I'm working on tenders deals with the government which required many documents and approvals!!" he wrote.
"Try please do not worry," Mr. Singh wrote in response. "I will support you whatever best for you."
Barred by banks from making electronic transfers, Mr. Rifai made several large cash deposits into the bank account of BDL to purchase the computers, the documents show. Asked last month about the purchases, Mr. Rifai responded in an e-mail: "We are Syrian company so we don't care about the rules America put, its only for American companies not us."
Last year, the Syrian government made similar purchases of computer equipment from a reseller of Hewlett-Packard. The equipment, according to various news reports, was used to monitor the e-mail and Internet use of opposition forces. Hewlett-Packard said its computers were sold without its knowledge.
In 2011, Internet-blocking devices from Blue Coat Systems, based in Sunnyvale, Calif., were shipped to Syria by a Dubai-based distributor. Executives at Blue Coat said they believed the equipment was being sold to the Iraqi government.
"It's a pattern that we've seen across the Middle East from governments trying to avoid democratic changes -- using proxies to bypass sanctions and buy equipment to stifle dissent and track Internet activity," said Charles Dunne, a former National Security Council official and director of the Middle East and North Africa program at Freedom House, a Washington nonprofit group that promotes democratic change. "The U.S. government and companies need to do a better job of making sure this equipment does not end up in the hands of governments like the Assad regime."
Correction: May 3, 2013, Friday
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction: An earlier version of this article and an accompanying picture erroneously identified Prince Alwaleed bin Talal of Saudi Arabia as the owner of BDL Gulf. Representatives of Prince Alwaleed said that neither he nor his senior advisers are aware of any connection between the prince and BDL Gulf.interact
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.