A Frenchman believed to have close ties to disgraced Chinese politician Bo Xilai (薄熙來) has returned to China to help the probe into the country’s biggest political scandal in decades, Cambodian police said yesterday.
Architect Patrick Devillers, arrested in Phnom Penh last month at Beijing’s request, was freed on Monday and he boarded a flight for Shanghai the following day “by his own will,” deputy national police chief Sok Phal said.
“He said he is going there to be a witness,” the official said, adding that China had asked for his release. “The French embassy supported this 100 percent.”
Embassy officials in Phnom Penh did not immediately respond to requests for comment, while a spokesman at the French embassy in Beijing declined to speak on the matter.
While his exact role is unclear, Devillers, 52, is understood to have been a close business associate and friend of Bo and his wife, Gu Kailai (谷開來), key figures in a political drama that has drawn worldwide attention.
China had requested Devillers’ extradition and his arrest on June 13 for unspecified offenses, sparking a diplomatic tussle between Beijing and Paris, which warned Cambodia not to send the architect anywhere without a clear legal basis.
Last week, Cambodian government officials said that Beijing had promised to grant Devillers, who was never formally charged with anything, legal immunity in return for cooperating with its investigations.
That announcement came a day after French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius met with Chinese Minister of Foreign Affairs Yang Jiechi (楊潔篪) in Beijing, though it remains unclear whether Devillers’ case was discussed.
The Bo scandal, which first came to light in February, has exposed deep divisions within the Chinese Communist Party ahead of a crucial, once-in-a-decade leadership transition, analysts say.
Bo, the former leader of the southwestern city Chongqing, is being probed for corruption, while Gu has been detained for suspected involvement in the murder of British businessman Neil Heywood last year.
Bo had been widely tipped for promotion to the top echelons of the party before the scandal spectacularly derailed his political career.
Devillers is believed to have first crossed paths with the couple in the 1990s, when Bo hired him to do some architectural work in Dalian.
According to media reports, the Frenchman also set up a short-lived firm with Gu in Britain in 2000.
The Financial Times reported late last month that Devillers, through a front company, helped Bo’s family acquire two luxury apartments now worth more than US$3 million in London in 2002 and 2003.
Devillers lived on-and-off at one of the properties until 2010, according to the report.
After divorcing his Chinese wife, with whom he has a son, Devillers settled in Cambodia about five years ago, becoming a low-key, but well-liked member of the expatriate community in Phnom Penh.
China has huge sway in Cambodia and the allies have an extradition treaty that allows suspects to be held for up to 60 days, although Phnom Penh had said it would need to see evidence of Devillers’ wrongdoing before handing him over.