Ex-Nissan boss Carlos Ghosn flees Japan for Lebanon

Nissan’s former chairman Carlos Ghosn said Tuesday from Lebanon that he was not fleeing justice but instead left Japan to avoid “injustice and political persecution” over financial misconduct allegations during his tenure leading the automaker.

Ghosn had been released on bail by a Tokyo court while awaiting trial but was not allowed to travel overseas. He disclosed his location in a statement through his representatives that did not describe how he left Japan, where he had been under surveillance. He promised to talk to reporters next week.

“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, in flagrant disregard of Japan’s legal obligations under international law and treaties it is bound to uphold,” the statement said.

Japanese media quoted prosecutors speaking anonymously who said they did not know how Ghosn had left.

Ghosn, who is of Lebanese origin and holds French, Lebanese and Brazilian passports, was arrested in November 2018 and was expected to face trial in April 2020.

Prosecutors fought his release, but a court granted him bail with conditions that he be monitored and he could not meet with his wife, Carole, who is also of Lebanese origin. Recently the court allowed them to speak by video calls.

Japan does not have an extradition treaty with Lebanon. It is unclear what steps authorities might take.

Ghosn has repeatedly asserted his innocence, saying authorities trumped up charges to prevent a possible fuller merger between Nissan Motor Co. and alliance partner Renault SA.

He has been charged with under-reporting his future compensation and breach of trust.

Lawyer denies involvement in escape

During his release on bail, Ghosn had been going daily to the office of his main lawyer, Junichiro Hironaka, to work on his case, except on weekends and holidays.

Hironaka told reporters Tuesday afternoon that he was stunned that Ghosn had jumped bail and denied any involvement in or knowledge of the escape. He said the lawyers had all of Ghosn’s three passports and was puzzled by how he could have left the country.

The last time he spoke to Ghosn was on Christmas Day, and he has never been consulted about leaving for Lebanon, Hironaka told reporters outside his law office in Tokyo.

He said the lawyers still need to decide on their next action, besides filing a required report to the judicial authorities. His office was closed for the New Year’s holiday in Japan.

“Maybe he thought he won’t get a fair trial,” Hironaka said, stressing that he continues to believe Ghosn is innocent. “I can’t blame him for thinking that way.”

He called the circumstances of Ghosn’s arrest, the seizure of evidence and the strict bail conditions unfair.

This image shows a house in Beirut that is believed to belong to Ghosn. (Mohamed Azakir/Reuters)

Ghosn had posted $14 million US bail on two separate releases. He had been rearrested on additional charges after an earlier release.

Earlier, Ricardo Karam, a television host and friend of Ghosn, told The Associated Press that Ghosn arrived in Lebanon on Monday morning.

“He is home,” Karam said in a message. “It’s a big adventure.”

Karam declined to elaborate.

Facing 15 years in prison

Nissan did not have immediate comment Tuesday. The Japanese automaker of the March subcompact, Leaf electric car and Infiniti luxury models has also been charged as a company in relation to Ghosn’s alleged financial crimes.

Japanese securities regulators recently recommended Nissan be fined 2.4 billion yen (about $24 million Cdn) over disclosure documents from 2014 to 2017. Nissan has said it accepted the penalty and had corrected its securities documents in May.

The company’s sales and profits have tumbled and its brand image is tarnished. It has acknowledged lapses in its governance and has promised to improve its transparency.

Another former Nissan executive, Greg Kelly, an American, was arrested at the same time as Ghosn and is awaiting trial. He has said he is innocent.

Hiroto Saikawa, who replaced Ghosn as head of Nissan, announced his resignation in September after financial misconduct allegations surfaced against him related to dubious income. He has not been charged with any crime.

The conviction rate in Japan exceeds 99 per cent and winning an acquittal through a lengthy appeals process could take years. Rights activists in Japan and abroad say Japan’s judicial system does not presume innocence enough and relies heavily on long detentions that lead to false confessions.

The charges Ghosn faces carry a maximum penalty of 15 years in prison.

He is accused of under-reporting his post-retirement compensation and breach of trust in diverting Nissan money and allegedly having it shoulder his personal investment losses. The other allegations against him involve payments to a Saudi dealership, as well as funds paid to an Oman business that purportedly were diverted to entities run by Ghosn.

Ghosn has said that the compensation was never decided, that Nissan never suffered losses from the investments and that all the payments were for legitimate business services.

Ghosn’s case has drawn intense media attention in Japan. When he was released from custody in March, the former executive normally seen in luxury suits wore a surgical mask and dressed like a construction worker to avoid media scrutiny under the advice of one of his lawyers. Japanese media still spotted him and followed his car.

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