Ex-Nissan chairman Carlos Ghosn flirted with Hollywood, then delivered a plot twist

Carlos Ghosn fled Japan for Lebanon this week, avoiding criminal charges of financial wrongdoing.
Carlos Ghosn fled Japan for Lebanon this week, avoiding criminal charges of financial wrongdoing.PHOTO: AFP

TOKYO (NYTIMES) - Carlos Ghosn, the fallen head of the Nissan-Renault auto alliance, didn't know much about making movies, but he seemed willing to learn.

Sitting in his rented home in a fashionable Tokyo neighbourhood one day in December, he walked Mr John Lesher, a Hollywood producer behind the Oscar-winning 2014 Michael Keaton film Birdman, through the plot of his own story, describing what he sees as his unjust imprisonment by Japanese officials and his struggle to prove his innocence, said people familiar with the discussions.

The theme was redemption. The villain was the Japanese justice system.

The talks were preliminary and did not get far, the people said. And in any case, Ghosn was preparing to deliver a shocking plot twist.

He fled Japan for Lebanon this week, avoiding criminal charges of financial wrongdoing and giving the world an improbable real-life tale of suspense and intrigue.

All the elements of a Hollywood-style thriller are there: A private plane whisking a fugitive into the sky, multiple passports, rumours of shadowy forces at work and people in power denying they knew anything about it.

Ghosn's conversations with Mr Lesher could offer a glimpse into his thinking in the days before his escape from a country that had kept him under heavy surveillance for months.

As court proceedings dragged on, Ghosn studied the cases of prominent defendants who had fought Japan's intractable justice system. He became convinced that he could never get a fair trial in Japan, with its 99 per cent conviction rate, people who know him say.

The authorities around the world are only beginning to piece together the details of his escape.

It is not clear exactly when Ghosn began planning his escape. But his meeting with Mr Lesher was one of several that he had during his last months in Tokyo as he contemplated the ending to the story of his fight against the Japanese justice system. In discussions, he wondered whether a movie could make him more sympathetic to the Japanese system.

He also wanted to learn how others had fought, even if they lost. In July, he met Mr Jake Adelstein, an American journalist who closely covers the Japanese criminal justice system, to discuss the prospects for his trial.

 
 

Mr Adelstein had recently published a book on Mark Karpeles, the former head of cryptocurrency exchange Mt Gox, who spent over five years in a bruising fight with Japan's legal system after being charged with falsifying data, embezzlement and breach of trust. In March, Karpeles was found guilty on the first charge and sentenced to 2½ years in prison, suspended for four years.

Mr Adelstein said Ghosn grilled him about the trial, seeking parallels with his own case and trying to understand the prosecutors' approach.

"I told him, 'They don't care about justice, Carlos; they care about winning,'" said Mr Adelstein, who wrote about Ghosn in the Daily Beast this week.

"The best-case scenario," he said, "is you get a suspended sentence." In the worst case, he warned, the 65-year-old Ghosn could be stranded in Japan for the rest of his life.

Ghosn also reached out to entrepreneur Takafumi Horie, who was sentenced to 2½ years in jail after a conviction on violating securities laws.

In a video posted to YouTube on Tuesday, Horie said that Ghosn had made an appointment through a third party to meet him in early January.

"He wanted to ask my opinions," he said. "I still haven't heard any of the details, but unfortunately, our dinner date was cancelled." Speaking through a representative, Horie declined to comment.

Questions had swirled around the handling of Ghosn's case from the moment Japanese prosecutors first detained him in November 2018.

Ghosn and his lawyers have argued that the arrest was a corporate coup aimed at stopping him from orchestrating a merger between Renault - controlled by the French government - and Nissan, one of the crown jewels of Japan's auto industry.

 
 

Before he was released on bail, Ghosn spent weeks in solitary confinement, where he was subject to interrogation by prosecutors without his own lawyer present, drawing harsh comparisons with how executives held for financial crimes are treated in the United States and elsewhere.

His lead lawyer on the case, Mr Junichiro Hironaka, and his team spent months condemning Japan's system of "hostage justice", as part of a public relations strategy aimed at questioning whether it was possible for Ghosn to get a fair trial in the country.

Regardless of the truth of the accusations against him, Ghosn found himself at a severe disadvantage as he prepared for trial.

Ultimately, he was arrested and indicted four times, detained and repeatedly interrogated for more than 130 days. As a condition of his bail, he was forbidden from almost all interactions with his son or wife, who prosecutors feared might help him tamper with witnesses.

His lawyers accused Nissan of becoming close to the prosecutors. For months, Nissan's efforts to cooperate with the investigation were led by Mr Hari Nada, a top official at the company who is expected to be a key witness against Ghosn. Internal documents from Nissan showed concerns within the company that the arrangement had created deep conflicts of interest, potentially compromising the investigation's results.

The company has said the investigation was handled appropriately.

Despite the challenges, Ghosn continued to insist that he would prove his innocence in court. In the months leading up to his escape, he spent most of his time at Mr Hironaka's office, preparing for his trial, according to people familiar with his movements.

In his off hours, he lived in a Tokyo rental with bare walls and little more than a stair-climbing machine for furniture. Neighbours often saw him shopping for groceries at the local import market or eating croissants at his favourite French cafe around the corner. His daughters visited frequently, and his excursions with them - which took him as far afield as Kyoto - became fodder for Japanese reporters.

But the former chief executive, who had once travelled the globe as easily as most people go to the corner market, chafed at the unaccustomed restrictions on his movements, according to people familiar with his thinking.

 
 

As conditions on his bail, cameras above his door surveilled his comings and goings. His phone use was restricted and he was not allowed to use the Internet outside of his lawyer's office. And most egregiously, for him, in recent months the court allowed him only two brief phone calls with his wife, while lawyers listened in.

Throughout it all, he remained determined to defend his innocence in court. But his attitude took a dramatic shift on Christmas Day, according to a person familiar with his thinking. A Japanese court had just denied a request by his defence team to spend the holiday with his wife.

Instead, he found himself in a Tokyo courtroom, where his lawyers argued with prosecutors over the details of his upcoming trial.

During the session, Ghosn learnt that the case could be tried in stages, potentially making it drag on for years.

This led him to assume that the Japanese intended to force him to confess or to hold him indefinitely, the person said.

"When you look at the situation Mr Ghosn was put in, it seems likely that his decision was driven by a feeling of despair," said Mr Nobuo Gohara, a former prosecutor who now works as a defence lawyer.

Now back in Lebanon, Ghosn, may be hoping to get his Hollywood ending.

Preparations are being made for a news conference in Beirut next week. Ghosn and his attorneys are expected to raise the idea of facing a trial in Lebanon instead of Japan, according to multiple people familiar with the discussions.

Lebanon, at least, may be receptive: Mr Salim Jreissati, a top government official, told a local paper this week that he had asked Japanese officials for Ghosn to be handed over to a Lebanese court to be tried under international anti-corruption laws.