TOKYO — Former Nissan Motor Co. Chairman Carlos Ghosn fled Japan while awaiting trial on financial misconduct charges. He escaped to Beirut, where he grew up and is considered a national hero by many. Here’s a look at the unfolding case of the fallen auto industry superstar:
Where is Ghosn?
Ghosn, who is Lebanese and also holds French and Brazilian passports, arrived in Lebanon on Monday after a stop in Turkey. Lebanese Justice Minister Albert Serhan told The Associated Press that Ghosn entered the country with a legal passport. Ghosn, who has not appeared in public, issued a statement saying he left to avoid a “rigged Japanese justice system.” He issued a second statement saying his family members played no role in his escape and that he did it alone. He said he will talk to reporters next week. Serhan said Lebanese prosecutors will question Ghosn, but there are no charges pending against him in Lebanon.
Escape despite heavy surveillance
Little is known about how Ghosn was able to leave Japan. He picked a time where security lapses are more likely — government offices are closed all week for New Year holidays. But his whereabouts were closely monitored, including by 24-hour security cameras, and his lawyers supposedly had all of his passports. He was able to use the internet only in his lawyer’s office, and he was forbidden from seeing his wife, Carole. They were recently allowed video calls, but only in the presence of his lawyer. Ghosn’s chief lawyer, Junichiro Hironaka, said he had no knowledge of the escape and was stunned by it.
How did Ghosn get out?
The dramatic disappearance has set off wild speculation, including that Ghosn was carted off inside a musical instrument case, though Japanese broadcaster NHK reported Friday that surveillance video showed him exiting his home alone shortly before he left Japan. A Turkish charter airline company said its jets were used in the escape and blamed an employee who falsified records. MNG Jet said Ghosn’s name did not appear on the official documentation for a flight from Dubai to Osaka and then on to Istanbul or another for a flight from Istanbul to Beirut. It’s not known how Ghosn might have traveled to Osaka to get on the flight.
Ghosn as fugitive
Interpol issued a wanted notice Thursday for Ghosn. Lebanon, which does not have an extradition treaty with Japan, must now decide how to respond. Expectations are low that Lebanon would hand over Ghosn. Interpol’s Red Notice is a non-binding request for law enforcement agencies to locate and provisionally arrest a fugitive. The notice is not an arrest warrant. Legal experts say Ghosn’s ability to travel will be restricted.
Japanese prosecutors, who had opposed Ghosn’s release on bail, raided his Tokyo home on Thursday. Turkey made several arrests as part of an investigation into how he passed through the country. Japanese government officials have not said anything publicly about Ghosn’s escape but they revoked the 1.5 billion yen ($14 million) bail. Trying someone in absentia is rare in Japan. A trial dealing with allegations against Nissan as a company and Greg Kelly, another Nissan executive, will continue. A date has not been set.
Ghosn, who was first arrested in November 2018, has repeatedly denied the charges against him. Part of the allegations center around his failure to report compensation that was promised to him. Ghosn has said those payments were never decided on. Nissan filed additional papers concerning the compensation after his arrest. Other charges of breach of trust involve Nissan money allegedly diverted to Ghosn for personal gain, including payments in Oman and Saudi Arabia. Ghosn has said those payments were for legitimate services. Prosecutors have released few specifics, saying they will do so at the trial. If convicted on all counts, Ghosn could face the maximum penalty of 15 years in prison. The conviction rate in Japan is higher than 99%.
Ghosn as star
Ghosn built a stellar reputation for his managerial acumen in transforming Nissan over the last two decades from near-bankruptcy to one of the biggest global auto brands. Several of his books on management were translated in Japanese, and one depicts him as a manga comic book character. Especially in his early years, he was cheered as a celebrity, admired for his hard work, and dubbed “7-11” after the convenience-store chain for the hours he kept. He still has close ties to senior politicians in Lebanon. After his arrest, he has become a symbol of protest against Japan’s so-called “hostage justice” system, which human rights advocates have long criticized as unfair and too reliant on confessions. Ghosn was held in detention for 130 days before posting bail.
Two Lebanese lawyers have submitted a report to the Public Prosecutor’s Office in Beirut against Ghosn, saying he violated Lebanese law by visiting Israel. The two countries are in a state of war. Ghosn visited Israel in 2008 to launch electric cars, and met with the prime minister and the president. Journalists, including those from Japan, have flocked to Ghosn’s rose-colored residence in Beirut’s affluent neighborhood of Ashrafieh. A Lebanese lawyer who said he worked for Nissan told reporters the building belongs to Nissan, which Ghosn also confirmed. Nissan officials have pointed to Ghosn’s extravagant lifestyle, including expensive chandeliers and a sarcophagus buried beneath transparent walkways at the Beirut residence.
Nissan’s brand has been seriously tarnished, and its sales and profits are tumbling. Ghosn was such a key figure for the brand in Japan, where foreign executives are still relatively rare, that it would be a challenge for anyone to fill his shoes. His successor, Hiroto Saikawa, resigned in September after financial misconduct allegations related to a dubious income surfaced against him. Nissan picked Makoto Uchida, who used to head its China business, as its new chief executive.
What happens to Nissan’s alliance with Renault SA of France, engineered by Ghosn, is a bigger question. Experts say the alliance is irreversible because so much is shared between the automakers, including model development, manufacturing sites and vehicle parts. Ghosn has said his arrest was prompted by those who opposed a fuller merger between Nissan and Renault. Renault owns 44% of Nissan, but in recent years, until Ghosn’s downfall, Nissan had grown more profitable than Renault. Nissan has been historically closely associated with Japanese pride. Uchida has affirmed the importance of the alliance and promised to restore Nissan’s credibility.
Reporting by Yuri Kageyama, with contributions from Bassem Mroue and Aj Naddaff.