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Tuesday, July 24, 2012

French Architect Tied to Disgraced Chinese Politician Arrives in Beijing

BEIJING -- The French government said on Monday that its diplomats visited a French architect over the weekend after he arrived in Beijing from Cambodia in connection with the case of a disgraced Chinese politician and his wife, but French officials disputed earlier accounts that the Chinese had taken him into custody.

After news media reports on Saturday that the Chinese had taken the architect, Patrick Henri Devillers, 51, into custody, a spokesman for the French Foreign Ministry said that Mr. Devillers was being "housed" in "proper conditions" and that he was not in prison. "He is well; he's in great health," said the spokesman, Bernard Valero.

An official at the French Embassy in Beijing said French diplomats would visit Mr. Devillers again this week. But officials did not specify his whereabouts or say whether he was free to leave China.

  Devillers was one of a group of Westerners friendly with the now-disgraced Chongqing party chief, Bo Xilai, and his wife, Gu Kailai, as they gained greater political standing in China in the 1990s and early 2000s. Mr. Devillers helped lay out a new street grid for the city of Dalian when Mr. Bo was its dynamic mayor, and he later was a business partner with Mr. Bo's wife.

The Chinese couple's downfall began after another Westerner who had been part of their circle, Neil Heywood, was found dead last November in a hotel room in Chongqing. The cause of death was initially ruled to be alcohol poisoning. But in February, Mr. Bo's police chief, Wang Lijun, went to the United States Consulate in Chengdu and revealed that Ms. Gu may have helped arrange Mr. Heywood's murder, drawing international attention to the case and opening a rare window into power struggles within China's top leadership.

The scandal quickly broadened. Mr. Bo, whose populist agenda had already alienated some of the leadership, was stripped of his post amid suggestions that he had an extensive surveillance network that reached the party's top echelon. He has not been seen publicly in months and is believed to be held in Beijing. Ms. Gu is also in custody in connection with Mr. Heywood's case. Mr. Wang has not been seen since he was escorted from the Chengdu consulate.

Mr. Devillers's whereabouts had been a mystery for months, until a reporter for The New York Times found him in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, in May. At the time, he said he had no interest in getting involved in the investigation by the Chinese into the Heywood murder.

But he then appeared to become the object of a tug of war between France on one side and Cambodia and China on the other. China is Cambodia's biggest foreign donor, and it enjoys Cambodia's loyalty in many disputes.

On June 13, Mr. Devillers was arrested in Phnom Penh at China's request. Cambodian officials, aware of protests from France, said at the time that they would not send the architect to China without proof of wrongdoing. He was released at the request of China last Tuesday, the Cambodian authorities said, and he boarded a plane for Shanghai the same day.

Before leaving, he made a video for the Cambodian authorities in which he said that he was leaving for China voluntarily and that he would go to Beijing. It showed Mr. Devillers sitting on a couch and answering questions in French from what appeared to be a Cambodian official holding a microphone.

"I reiterate that I'm leaving freely to this destination," he said.

Scott Sayare contributed reporting from Paris.

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