Spirited away: Carlos Ghosn's brazen disappearing act leaves questions unanswered

Lebanon received an Interpol arrest warrant on Thursday for former Nissan boss Carlos Ghosn, as Turkey launched an investigation into his daring escape from Japan via Istanbul.
The woman in this car in Beirut last Thursday is believed to be Ghosn's wife, Carole. Ghosn has said his wife did not orchestrate his escape. A private jet believed to have been used by Ghosn in his flight from Japan. He first flew to Istanbul, then
Former Nissan chief Carlos Ghosn, who fled Japan where he was awaiting trial on charges of financial misconduct, said in a statement last week that he was not fleeing justice but had escaped "injustice and political persecution".PHOTO: REUTERS
The woman in this car in Beirut last Thursday is believed to be Ghosn's wife, Carole. Ghosn has said his wife did not orchestrate his escape. A private jet believed to have been used by Ghosn in his flight from Japan. He first flew to Istanbul, then
A private jet believed to have been used by Ghosn in his flight from Japan. He first flew to Istanbul, then switched planes to fly to Beirut.PHOTO: REUTERS
The woman in this car in Beirut last Thursday is believed to be Ghosn's wife, Carole. Ghosn has said his wife did not orchestrate his escape. A private jet believed to have been used by Ghosn in his flight from Japan. He first flew to Istanbul, then
The woman in this car in Beirut last Thursday is believed to be Ghosn's wife, Carole. Ghosn has said his wife did not orchestrate his escape.PHOTO: REUTERS

Carlos Ghosn's brazen disappearing act leaves questions unanswered and sparks a diplomatic showdown

For all his valid criticism of the Japanese justice system, under which he was initially denied bail and spent 129 days in remand without a trial, fallen Nissan chief Carlos Ghosn's flight has unambiguously placed him on the wrong side of the law, burning all bridges with the country where he had made his corporate reputation.

His escape has put paid to any arguments that he and his lawyers have made about the financial misconduct charges being part of a conspiracy to bring him down.

"This is a challenge to all civilised societies," top corporate governance lawyer Shin Ushijima, who is not involved in the case, told The Sunday Times, stressing that no one is above the law, regardless of political ties. "The richer and more powerful a person is, the more respect will be required of that person, for the rule of law," he added.

Ghosn, 65, who was born in Brazil, may have chosen to flee to Lebanon - where he spent most of his childhood years - because Beirut has no extradition treaty with Tokyo. But the Interpol "red notice" warrant hanging over his head means his future movements will have to be shrouded in secrecy and restricted to countries willing to harbour him.

It also means he may have forced a diplomatic showdown with the world's third-largest economy, and implicated many who will now face the music for his daring escape.

'RIGGED' JUSTICE

Before he fled, Ghosn was reportedly in exclusive talks with Netflix for a film that would document his life, his Nov 19, 2018 arrest on the tarmac of Haneda International Airport, and his indictment on four charges of financial misconduct, including hiding his income.

A towering figure in the car industry, he rescued Nissan from bankruptcy in the early 2000s and was called the "cost killer" for slashing jobs and closing factories.

His arrest made headlines around the world. The international condemnation resulting from his prolonged detention without trial, it is widely believed, led the Tokyo District Court to grant Ghosn bail of 1.5 billion yen (S$18.73 million).

Ghosn, who maintains his innocence, leveraged his limited freedom to lead a public relations assault on Japan's justice system, under which prosecutors denied his defence team access to about 6,000 documents that could have helped build his case.

He also fought against the stringent bail conditions that barred him from going online or talking to his wife, Carole, without prior approval. He had to install surveillance cameras at the entrance of his residence in the Azabu district, an area many diplomats and expatriates call home. He moved in last May, and neighbours said he took daily walks and made regular trips to a nearby gym.

It was a meeting with lawyers and court officials on Christmas Day - not a public holiday in Japan - that pushed him off the edge, the Financial Times said yesterday.

He was reportedly told that his trial, originally set for around April, could be pushed to late this year.

Worse still, the complexities of the case meant a prolonged hearing was likely. His staunch belief that he would never get a fair hearing under Japan's "rigged" justice system "where guilt is presumed, discrimination is rampant, and basic human rights are denied" also contributed to his choice to go on the run.

 
 
 

DISAPPEARING ACT

Ghosn chose an opportune time to flee: the week-long New Year holiday from Dec 28 to Jan 5, during which many companies and government agencies are shut or on low-power mode. This is also the period when many Japanese employees in Tokyo go home for the holidays.

Many theories have surfaced and been debunked since he resurfaced in Lebanon on New Year's Eve - including a claim that he was smuggled out in a musical instrument case. Ghosn has dismissed as fiction, suspicions that his wife had orchestrated his escape.

Questions, however, remain, at least for the Japan leg of his escape. How did he evade near-constant surveillance? Why did the authorities not notice his absence earlier? How did he travel undetected between Tokyo and Osaka, a distance of 530km? How did he pass immigration checks or Customs to board a chartered private jet for Istanbul? Immigration officials have no record of him leaving, Japanese national broadcaster NHK said.

But what is certain, according to closed-circuit surveillance footage, is that Ghosn walked out of his home in broad daylight at around noon on Dec 29. He never returned.

Separately, he was also watched by a private security firm engaged by Nissan to ensure he did not meet anybody involved in the case. But this surveillance was stopped by Dec 29, after Ghosn threatened to file a complaint over a violation of his human rights, Reuters reported.

While Ghosn's lawyers had held on to his French, Brazilian and Lebanese passports, he is said to have fled using a spare French passport and a Lebanese identity card.

Data from FlightAware, a flight tracking service, shows a Bombardier business aircraft departed Osaka just after 11pm local time and landed at Istanbul Ataturk Airport about 12 hours later.

He then switched planes for the flight to Beirut's Rafic Hariri International Airport. The jets were chartered from Turkish company MNG Jet, which said its planes were illegally used by a rogue employee to pull off the escape. Records were falsified to omit Ghosn's name from the passenger manifest.

MNG Jet filed a criminal complaint in Turkey last Wednesday and said it "hopes that the people who illegally used and/or facilitated the use of the services of the company will be duly prosecuted".

Five people have been detained by Turkish prosecutors - four pilots and MNG Jet's operations manager - for pre-trial questioning, while two others have been released.

The woman in this car in Beirut last Thursday is believed to be Ghosn's wife, Carole. Ghosn has said his wife did not orchestrate his escape. A private jet believed to have been used by Ghosn in his flight from Japan. He first flew to Istanbul, then
Turkish police officers with suspects thought to be involved in Carlos Ghosn's passage through Istanbul after he fled Japan. PHOTO: AP

WHAT'S NEXT?

In Tokyo, a probe is set to begin into how exactly Ghosn managed his audacious disappearing act.

 
 
 

The head of his legal team, Mr Junichiro Hironaka - billed as "the Razor" for having won a string of high-profile acquittals - who said Ghosn's escape was "inexcusable", is also likely to be questioned.

Another of Ghosn's attorneys, Mr Takashi Takano, wrote in a blog post yesterday that he felt initially "outraged and betrayed" by his client's escape.

But, in what appeared to be implicit criticism of the justice system, he added that upon reflecting on the case: "Certainly I was betrayed. However, it was not Carlos Ghosn that betrayed me."

Lebanese Justice Minister Albert Serhan told the Nikkei newspaper on Friday that Ghosn will be questioned "as soon as possible".

Mr Serhan said Lebanon "will consider how to respond" to the Interpol notice based on what is gained from the interrogation, but added that there are no legal issues with Ghosn staying in Beirut, given that his entry was lawful.

Ghosn, in a brief statement, said last week: "I have not fled justice - I have escaped injustice and political persecution."

All eyes will now be on a news conference that the fugitive is set to deliver in Beirut on Wednesday.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on January 05, 2020, with the headline 'Spirited away'. Print Edition | Subscribe