Cambodia was at the centre of a diplomatic tug-of-war between Paris and Beijing Wednesday over the arrest of a Frenchman linked to China’s biggest political scandal in decades.
Beijing has requested the extradition of 52-year-old architect Patrick Devillers, who was arrested in Phnom Penh on June 13 for committing unspecified offences in China.
Devillers is understood to have been a close business associate and friend of disgraced Chinese politician Bo Xilai and his wife Gu Kailai.
Bo, the former leader of the southwestern Chinese megacity of Chongqing, is being probed for corruption while Gu has been detained for suspected involvement in the murder of British businessperson Neil Heywood last year.
But after France on Wednesday warned Cambodia not to take any action without a clear legal basis, Phnom Penh promised not to send Devillers to China unless Beijing provides evidence to support its extradition request.
“In Cambodia he did not commit any wrongdoing,” interior ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak told AFP. “If there is no clear evidence he will be freed.”
China and Cambodia have an extradition treaty but Khieu Sopheak said no decision had been made about the Frenchman, adding that Cambodia was also consulting French authorities on the matter.
“We are waiting for evidence from the party that requested his arrest… We need evidence from China,” he said. “We can hold him for 60 days.”
Devillers’ connection to the Bo family drama remains unclear but in an interview with French daily Le Monde last month he denied allegations of any wrongdoing.
Neighbours and friends in Phnom Penh spoke fondly of long-time resident Devillers, although they said he had not been seen much in recent weeks.
“He was probably keeping a low profile because he saw the storm coming,” said an 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.”
A security guard who works at a furniture store opposite Devillers’ two-storey house described seeing two vehicles carrying five police officers and two foreigners drive up to the property about two weeks ago.
“I saw that they took him away,” the 18-year-old said, adding that Devillers was not handcuffed. “That was the last time I saw him.”
The woman who runs the furniture store told AFP that Devillers had lived in the neighbourhood for around five years and did architectural design work.
“He’s a good man. He always respects the neighbours,” she said, declining to be named. “He told me that he lived in China for many years. He speaks Chinese well.”
A police source told AFP that Devillers was being held at Phnom Penh’s immigration department.
His elderly father Michel Devillers told British newspaper The Daily Telegraph from his home in France that his son’s arrest had come as a shock.
“I spoke to my son 10 days ago and he appeared perfectly calm,” he was quoted as saying.
“He had no idea he was in danger of being arrested… I will be speaking with a French consular contact in Cambodia tomorrow, and I intend to fly to Cambodia as soon as possible.”
French foreign ministry spokesman Bernard Valero said Paris had asked Cambodia “for clarifications on the motives for his arrest”.
“We have made clear that we will be watchful that no legal action of any kind be brought against him unless its legal basis has been clearly established,” he said.
In Beijing, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei told reporters he had “no information on this case” when repeatedly asked about the arrest of Devillers.
Hong refused to say whether the extradition of Devillers was brought up during a visit to Cambodia last week by top Chinese leader He Guoqiang, who heads the ruling Communist Party’s internal disciplinary organ and is reportedly heading up the investigation into Bo.
The scandal surrounding Bo and Gu, which first came to light in February and made worldwide headlines, has exposed deep divisions within the Communist Party ahead of a crucial, once-in-a-decade leadership transition, analysts say.