Carlos Ghosn. Picture: REUTERS/REGIS DUVIGNAU
Carlos Ghosn. Picture: REUTERS/REGIS DUVIGNAU

Paris/Tokyo — Ousted Nissan boss Carlos Ghosn has confirmed he fled to Lebanon, saying he wouldn’t be “held hostage” by a “rigged” justice system and raising questions about how one of the world’s most recognised executives escaped Japan months before his trial.

Ghosn’s abrupt departure marks the latest dramatic twist in a year-old saga that has shaken the global automotive industry, jeopardised the alliance of Nissan Motor and top shareholder Renault, 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 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.”

Neither Ghosn’s attorney nor a spokesperson for the Tokyo prosecutors office had immediate comment when contacted earlier about Ghosn’s whereabouts. Nissan declined to comment.

Most immediately, 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 passport.

A person resembling Ghosn entered Beirut international airport under a different name after flying in aboard a private jet, Japanese public broadcaster NHK reported, citing an unidentified Lebanese security official. Japanese immigration authorities had no record of Ghosn leaving the country, NHK said.

While Ghosn’s arrest on financial misconduct charges in 2018 ensured his 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 at one time featured on a postage stamp.

Though born in Brazil, Ghosn is of Lebanese ancestry and grew up in Beirut. He has retained close ties to the country.

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 arrested at a Tokyo airport shortly after his private jet touched down on November 19, 2018. 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 including understating his salary while he was its CEO and transferring $5 millionm 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.

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

He was released from prison in March on a $9m bail, among the highest paid in Japan. 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.

House arrest

The Financial Times on Monday said Ghosn was no longer under house arrest. Citing an associate of Ghosn, the newspaper said the former executive landed at Beirut’s Rafic al-Hariri international airport late on Sunday.

Ghosn travelled to Lebanon via Turkey, arriving on Monday, The Wall Street Journal said, citing people familiar with the matter. One unidentified person told the newspaper 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 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 carmaker 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