Phnom Penh resident Patrick Henri Devillers, 52, made international headlines when French government officials on Tuesday revealed that he had been arrested in Cambodia at China’s behest.
But yesterday, the story of how the French architect with links to the scandal-hit Chinese politician Bo Xilai and his wife Gu Kailai came to be held by Cambodian authorities was only just starting to emerge.
According to friends of his in the local French community, Mr. Devillers was whisked away by a group of well-dressed Cambodians at an innocent seeming business meeting on June 13 at a restaurant in Phnom Penh. Mr. Devillers had gone to the meeting thinking that he was to meet people interested in buying a plot of land he owns in Kep, friends said.
The meeting occurred inside the Romdeng restaurant on Street 174, which is situated next door to the three-story house Mr. Devillers rented in Daun Penh district.
Sometime between 11 a.m. and noon Mr. Devillers had emerged from a side door of his rented property with a companion, also a member of the local French community, and sat and ordered soft drinks on the restaurant’s patio, according to interviews with staff.
A short time before Mr. Devillers entered the building, seven Cambodians had arrived together and sat at two tables – five at one table and two at another – in the restaurant’s courtyard.
Friends of Mr. Devillers said the meeting was with two Cambodians, both of whom spoke Chinese. A waiter also said the group included two Cambodians, and referred to the two as “Excellencies.”
“You can tell that they are high ranking officials based on the things they had-rings and fancy phones,” said the waiter who request anonymity due to the sensitive of the issue.
Mr. Devillers and his friend went over to greet the two Cambodians at their table. Then all four moved back to Mr. Devillers’ table, the waiter said.
Mr. Devillers’ companion left at some point during the 15-to-20-minute conversation, apparently still under the impression that the meeting was a business exchange over the land in Kep that Mr. Devillers wanted to sell.
Staff said that as the meeting drew to a close, Mr. Devillers left with the two Cambodians from the restaurant, and got into a gold-colored Lexus that was waiting outside.
Municipal police chief Touch Naruth yesterday said that Mr. Devillers was arrested in a restaurant in Daun Penh district, but declined to give further details.
Following that meeting at Romdeng, Mr. Devillers then went off the radar.
His apartment next to the restaurant is currently abandoned, and his Chinese-made electric bicycle was still parked outside Romdeng yesterday.
Friends did not hear from Mr. Devillers until earlier this week, when, through French diplomatic sources, he sent word to a close friend saying that he was being held by police.
Adding further intrigue to the arrest, a delegation of high-ranking Chinese Communist Party members-one of whom has an official interest in Mr. Bo’s case-was meeting Prime Minister Hun Sen in his office building on the same day Mr. Devillers was detained.
He Guoqiang, a senior member of the Chinese Communist Party’s
Politburo Standing Committee, led the delegation to Cambodia last week as part of a wider international tour. Mr. He is also the secretary of the Chinese Central Commission for Discipline Inspection and is reportedly leading the investigation into the alleged wrongdoing that led to Mr. Bo’s downfall in March.
Mr. He met with Mr. Hun Sen and National Assembly President Heng Samrin, among others, and pledged loans for dam and road building projects, as well as gifts of Chinese-made airplanes to Cambodia.
It is still unclear how Mr. Devillers is linked to China’s allegations against Mr. Bo, although he has been linked on a personal and business level with his wife, Ms. Gu.
Yesterday, Mr. Devillers whereabouts were unclear. A guard at the immigration police office opposite Phnom Penh International Airport said a Frenchman had been brought in to the building late last week, but said he was soon taken to another location.
The French Foreign Ministry in Paris said during a daily press conference yesterday that Mr. Devillers remained in detention in Phnom Penh and had been visited by French consulate officials.
“He [is] a very smart person. Very much liked and an excellent architect,” said Pierre-Yves Clais, a local hotelier and a friend of Mr. Devillers. He added that Mr. Devillers had been living in Cambodia for about five years and has a Cambodian partner with whom he has two young children.
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