PARIS/TOKYO (Reuters) – Ousted Nissan boss Carlos Ghosn 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-recognized 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 auto industry, jeopardized the alliance of Nissan Motor Co Ltd and top shareholder Renault SA 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, 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.”
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 passports.
Japanese immigration authorities had no record of Ghosn leaving the country, Japanese public broadcaster NHK said. A person resembling Ghosn entered Beirut international airport under a different name after flying in aboard a private jet, 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 in comments broadcast live by NHK.
Hironaka 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 behavior”.
While Ghosn’s arrest on financial misconduct charges last year 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.
Born in Brazil, Ghosn is of Lebanese ancestry and grew up in Beirut. He has retained close ties to the country.
A spokeswoman 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 spokesman in Tokyo declined to comment.
Ghosn was arrested at a Tokyo airport shortly after his private jet touched down on Nov. 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 chairman saying internal investigations revealed misconduct ranging from understating his salary while he was its chief executive, and transferring $5 million 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 defense lawyers from being present during interrogations that can last eight hours a day.
Tokyo officials say the system is not inhumane and that Ghosn has been treated like any other suspect.
He was released from prison in March on a $9 million bail, among the highest-ever 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.
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 traveled 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 “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 tire 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.
Reporting by Christian Lowe and Nicolas Delame in Paris and Tim Kelly in Tokyo; Additional reporting by Kevin Buckland, Linda Sieg and David Dolan in Tokyo, Eric Knecht in Beirut, Ben Klayman in Detroit and David Shepardson in Washington; Editing by Dan Grebler and Christopher Cushing