Carlos Ghosn flees Japan for Lebanon

Awaiting-trial former Renault-Nissan chair says he won't be “held hostage” by Japan's justice system

31 December 2019 - 11:43 By Christian Lowe and Tim Kelly
Former Nissan Motor chief Carlos Ghosn leaves the Tokyo Detention House in Tokyo, Japan, on April 25 2019.
Former Nissan Motor chief Carlos Ghosn leaves the Tokyo Detention House in Tokyo, Japan, on April 25 2019.
Image: Reuters

Ousted Nissan boss Carlos Ghosn confirmed that he fled to Lebanon, saying he wouldn't be “held hostage” by a “rigged” system, raising questions about how one of the world's most-recognised executives slipped out of Japan months before his trial.

Ghosn's abrupt departure marks the latest dramatic twist in a year-old saga that has shaken the global auto industry, jeopardised the alliance of Nissan Motor Co and top shareholder Renault SA and cast a harsh light on Japan's judicial system.

“I am now in Lebanon and will no longer be held hostage by a rigged Japanese justice system where guilt is presumed, discrimination is rampant, and basic human rights are denied,” Ghosn, 65, said in a brief statement on Tuesday.

“I have not fled justice - I have escaped injustice and political persecution. I can now finally communicate freely with the media, and look forward to starting next week.”

Tokyo officials have previously said the system is not inhumane and that Ghosn has been treated like any other suspect.

It was unclear how Ghosn, who holds French, Brazilian and Lebanese citizenship, was able to orchestrate his departure from Japan, given that he had been under strict surveillance by authorities while out on bail and had surrendered his passports.

Ghosn arrived in Beirut on a private jet from Istanbul on Monday, people familiar with the matter told Reuters.

Immigration authorities had no record of Ghosn leaving the country, Japanese public broadcaster NHK said. A person resembling him entered Beirut international airport under a different name, NHK reported, citing an unidentified Lebanese security official.

His lawyers were still in possession of his three passports, one of his lawyers, Junichiro Hironaka, told reporters.

Hironaka, in comments broadcast live on NHK, said the first he had heard of Ghosn's departure was on the morning news and that he was surprised. He also said it was “inexcusable behaviour”.

Japan has extradition treaties with only the US and South Korea, according to the justice ministry, meaning it could be difficult to force Ghosn to return to stand trial.

While his arrest on financial misconduct charges last year ensured a dramatic fall from grace in Japan, he retains more popularity in Lebanon, where billboards saying, “We are all Carlos Ghosn” were erected in his support and he was previously featured on a postage stamp.

Born in Brazil of Lebanese ancestry, Ghosn grew up in Beirut and has retained close ties to Lebanon.

A spokesperson for the Lebanese embassy in Tokyo said, “we did not receive any information” on the matter. Calls to the Brazilian embassy went unanswered. A French embassy spokesperson in Tokyo declined to comment.

FLIGHT RISK

Ghosn was first arrested in Tokyo in November 2018, shortly after his private jet touched down at the airport. He faces four charges - which he denies - including hiding income and enriching himself through payments to dealerships in the Middle East.

Nissan sacked him as chair, saying internal investigations revealed misconduct ranging from understating his salary while he was its CEO, and transferring $5 million (R70.3 million) of Nissan funds to an account in which he had an interest.

The case cast a harsh light on Japan's criminal justice system, which allows suspects to be detained for long periods and prohibits defence lawyers from being present during interrogations that can last eight hours a day.

Ghosn was initially released in March on a record $9 million (R126.5 million) bail only to be arrested on related charges weeks later and then released on bail again at the end of April.

His movement and communications have been monitored and restricted to prevent his fleeing the country and tampering with evidence, the Tokyo District court previously said.

The terms of his bail have also been striking by Western standards. He has been prevented from communicating with his wife, Carole, and had his use of the internet and other communications curtailed.

Carole is now with him in Lebanon at a house with armed guards outside, The New York Times reported, citing a person familiar with the matter.

HOUSE ARREST

The Financial Times on Monday said Ghosn was no longer under house arrest. One person told The Wall Street Journal Ghosn did not believe he would get a fair trial in Japan and was “tired of being an industrial political hostage”.

A person familiar with Nissan's thinking told Reuters: “I think he gave up fighting the prosecutors in court.”

Ghosn's Japanese lawyers have fought, so far unsuccessfully, to get access to 6,000 pieces of evidence collected from Nissan, which they say are crucial to a fair trial.

Ghosn has said he is the victim of a boardroom coup, accusing former Nissan colleagues of “back-stabbing” and describing them as selfish rivals bent on derailing closer ties between the Japanese automaker and its biggest shareholder Renault, of which Ghosn was also chair.

His lawyers have asked the court to dismiss all charges, accusing prosecutors of colluding with government officials and Nissan executives to oust him to block any takeover by Renault.

Ghosn began his career in 1978 at tyre maker Michelin. In 1996, he moved to Renault where he oversaw a turnaround that won him the nickname “Le Cost Killer”.

After Renault sealed an alliance with Nissan in 1999, Ghosn used similar methods to revive the ailing brand, leading to business superstar status in Japan, blanket media coverage and even a manga comic book on his life. - Reuters


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