'Gentle' French architect mired in China scandal
PHNOM PENH - Agence France-Presse
A general view of the home of French architect Patrick Devillers in Phnom Penh on June 20, 2012. AFP photoThe French architect arrested in Cambodia over his mysterious role in China's biggest political scandal in decades is better known for his love of art and literature than diplomatic intrigues.
Patrick Devillers was arrested in Phnom Penh on June 13 for unspecified offences in China, in a case that has shocked those close to him and could spark a diplomatic tussle between Paris and Beijing, which is seeking his extradition.
Details are sketchy, but Devillers is reported to have close ties to disgraced Chinese politician Bo Xilai and his wife Gu Kailai, who is being held in China on suspicion of murdering Briton Neil Heywood -- found dead in hotel room in November.
Bo, the former leader of the southwestern Chinese megacity of Chongqing, was widely tipped for promotion to the top echelons of the Communist Party before a sudden corruption probe in March spectacularly derailed his political career.
Devillers' friends and neighbours in Phnom Penh are at a loss as to how the cultured 52-year-old, who enjoyed an apparently quiet life in a leafy villa near the centre of Phnom Penh, has become embroiled in the scandal.
The Frenchman is believed to have worked with Bo in the Chinese city of Dalian in the 1990s, and according to media reports set up a short-lived firm with Gu in Britain in 2000.
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 expat community in Phnom Penh, known for his love of literature and a penchant for riding an electric bicycle.
Speaking to French newspaper Le Monde in May, Devillers said he "left China as I arrived... with nothing" and described working with Bo in Dalian as "very stimulating, it had an incredible energy." "In his (Bo's) eyes, I was a kind of artist," he was quoted as saying.
The Frenchman seemingly divided his time between his gated Phnom Penh home, set within a picturesque courtyard shaded by trees, and the peaceful beachtown of Kep, and was by all accounts intent on staying in his adopted country.
"He was happy to settle in Cambodia, it's a life with more serenity... at least until recently," said his friend and compatriot Pierre-Yves Clais, who described Devillers as someone "very discreet, very cultured, very gentle".
He added that Devillers has two young children, a boy and a girl, with a Cambodian woman. The couple are not married and neighbours said they couldn't remember seeing Devillers with the woman or their children at his villa, from which he also ran an architectural design business.
Clais, who owns several hotels in Cambodia, said Devillers worked with him on a number of hotel projects over the years and did some consulting on a hotel project in Phnom Penh just days before his arrest. One neighbour said Devillers planned to expand his business and had recently extended the lease on his two-storey villa by 10 years, but added she had not seen him much over recent weeks. "He was probably keeping a low profile because he saw the storm coming," said another acquaintance who did not wish to be named.
"I strongly doubt whether that storm is justified. I see Patrick as a subtle, almost poetic, creative person who found himself caught in a Chinese tangle because of his enthusiasm." Clais said Devillers, who speaks Chinese, regularly discussed his years in China, and there was never any indication he was caught up in any kind of controversy.
But the first dark clouds gathered a few months ago, when reporters tracked Devillers down to his home to ask him about his role in the Bo Xilai story.
"He was annoyed to be in the glare of the spotlight," said Clais. The architect initially declined to comment, but later sent a cryptic email response to the New York Times quoting a Taoist philosophical text: "'Give evil nothing to oppose and it will disappear by itself,'" Devillers wrote. "I believe this teaching to be full of wisdom and hope facts will unfold the truth of it." News of Devillers' arrest, which happened on June 13 but was only confirmed by Cambodia and France this week, came as a complete surprise his elderly father Michel Devillers told British newspaper The Daily Telegraph this week.
"I spoke to my son 10 days ago and he appeared perfectly calm," he was quoted as saying, adding he had "no idea he was in danger of being arrested." Questioned by AFP on Thursday, Devillers' mother declined to comment.