Ghosn flees to Lebanon, says he won’t be ‘held hostage’ by Japan’s justice system

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An April 2019 photo shows Carlos Ghosn leaving the Tokyo Detention House in Japan. PHOTO: REUTERS

BEIRUT/TOKYO (REUTERS) - Ousted Nissan boss Carlos Ghosn said on Tuesday (Dec 31) he had fled to Lebanon to escape a "rigged" justice system in Japan, raising questions about how one of the world's most-recognised executives had slipped away while on bail.

Ghosn's abrupt departure marks the latest twist in a year-old saga that has shaken the global auto industry, jeopardised the alliance of Nissan Motor and top shareholder Renault and increased scrutiny of 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, who is facing trial on financial misconduct charges he denies, 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. He had been under strict surveillance by authorities while out on bail and had surrendered his passports.

According to a senior Lebanese foreign ministry source, Ghosn entered Lebanon legally on a French passport and using his Lebanese ID with normal security procedures.

People familiar with the matter told Reuters he had arrived in Beirut on a private jet from Istanbul on Monday.

The French and Lebanese foreign ministries both said they were unaware of the circumstances of his journey.

"All discussion of it is his private matter," the Lebanese ministry added.

Lebanon's state security directorate said Ghosn will not face any legal consequences for the way he entered the country, the Lebanese state NNA news agency reported. The foreign ministry said his arrival was a personal matter and that Lebanon did not have a judicial cooperation agreement with Japan.

Japanese authorities had no record of Ghosn leaving, 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 news this morning and that he was surprised. He also said it was "inexcusable behaviour".

Japan has extradition treaties with only the United States 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.

At Ghosn's gated villa in the Achrafieh neighbourhood of Beirut, a handful of police and private security personnel stood guard on Tuesday.

A man who identified himself only as his English neighbour walked by to leave a card, with the words "Carlos, welcome home!" written inside. It was not immediately clear if Ghosn was at the address.

"It's a good thing that at last he's out of being locked up for something which he may or may not - probably not - have done," said the neighbour.

A French minister said before the report Ghosn used a French passport that she was "very surprised" by news of his emergence in Lebanon.

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 chairman saying internal investigations revealed misconduct including understating his salary while he was its chief executive, and transferring US$5 million (S$6.7 million) of Nissan funds to an account in which he had an interest.

The case sparked international criticism of Japan's justice system, in which 99.9 per cent of people charged with crimes are convicted and defence lawyers are prohibited from being present during interrogations that can last eight hours a day.

Ghosn was initially released in March on a record US$9 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

Ghosn did not believe he would get a fair trial in Japan and was "tired of being an industrial political hostage", one person told The Wall Street Journal.

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

The trial was widely expected to start in April. Ghosn's Japanese lawyers have fought, so far unsuccessfully, to get access to 6,000 pieces of evidence collected from Nissan, which they say is crucial to a fair trial.

Ghosn has said he is the victim of a boardroom coup, accusing former Nissan colleagues of "backstabbing" 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 chairman.

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 super-star status in Japan, blanket media coverage and even a manga comic book on his life.

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