Carlos Ghosn used the performance of his life to condemn the Japanese justice system he fled, claim he was innocent of all the charges against him and reveal that his three-way global automaking alliance was on the verge of adding a fourth member – Fiat Chrysler Automobiles – just before his arrest.
In an animated 2½-hour news conference in Beirut, the fugitive executive charged with financial misconduct accused Japan and its prosecutors of “repaying me with evil” for almost two decades of service, during which he revived the near-moribund car giant Nissan and pushed it into partnership with Mitsubishi and France’s Renault.
But the former boss of Nissan and Renault stopped short of saying the charges were concocted at the top level of government – even if he claimed “illegal” collusion between some government officials and Nissan executives to destroy his career. He said his downfall was triggered by his desire to integrate Nissan and Renault, a scenario that some at Nissan resisted.
“This is where the problem started,” he said. “Unfortunately, there was no trust, and some of our Japanese friends thought the only way to get rid of the influence of Renault on Nissan [was] to get rid of me.”
He refused to reveal any details about his daring escape from Japan on Dec. 30 with the help of a former Green Beret, a caper that delivered him to Beirut in a private jet after stops in Osaka and Istanbul – and may have seem him hide in a storage case loaded onto the plane.
In his first public appearance since his arrest in Tokyo in November, 2018, Mr. Ghosn, 65, flung his arms up in the air, dabbed the sweat from his brow and spoke effortlessly in four languages – English, French, Portuguese and Arabic – as he talked about his arrest and incarceration.
He wore a dark suit and a red tie and looked decidedly older than he did before his arrest. His Lebanese-born American second wife, Carole, who had a career selling luxury kaftans, faced him from the audience’s front row. Only the day before, Japanese prosecutors issued a warrant for her arrest for allegedly giving false testimony during a court appearance last spring.
Mr. Ghosn, who has Lebanese citizenship, is considered by many Lebanese to be a wronged corporate superstar, and the country’s media applauded some of his remarks.
When asked whether he could pinpoint the moment he decided to jump bail and risk life behind bars, he hinted that it came around Christmas, when he learned his trial would be delayed until 2021. By then, he had already spent 400 days isolated in a prison cell or detained in a small apartment in Tokyo, where he was under constant surveillance and denied access to his wife and family. “There was no sign I was going to be treated fairly,” he told a packed hall of international journalists. “It’s not very difficult to come to the conclusion that you were going to die in Japan or you had to get out.”
The sheer sophistication of his escape, however, suggests it was many weeks, perhaps months, in the planning and probably cost him a fortune. Various reports said the forfeited bail – almost US$14-million – and the price of the flights and his escape team may have come to US$20-million or more. He said, “I was nervous, I was tense, I was anxious” until landing in Lebanon, which has no extradition treaty with Japan, and meeting Carole at her parents’ house.
Mr. Ghosn said he could have gone to France or Brazil – he has citizenship in those countries, too – but chose Lebanon “more for logistical reasons than anything else.” He did not elaborate, but Lebanon was the closest to Japan of the three, and he has friends and family in the tiny Mediterranean country, among them President Michel Aoun. France may have been too risky because of an investigation there into his use of the Versailles palace for lavish parties.
A reporter suggested he chose Lebanon because it lacks a robust justice system and might stack the odds in favour of a “not guilty” verdict. Mr. Ghosn dismissed the notion. “I will be ready to stand trial anywhere where I feel I can get a fair trial,” he said.
He painted himself not only as a victim of the “travesty” of the Japanese justice system, where more than 99 per cent of those indicted are convicted, but also as a hotshot executive who had created the world’s most successful, and only truly global, auto partnership.
Measured by unit sales, Nissan-Renault-Mitsubishi is the industry’s biggest player. The addition of Fiat Chrysler – owner of the Fiat, Chrysler, Alfa Romeo, Jeep, Ram and Maserati brands – might have made it unassailable to the likes of Volkswagen, Toyota and General Motors. (FCA last month agreed to merge with France’s PSA, owner of Peugeot.) “We had an understanding,” he said, referring to his negotiations with FCA chairman John Elkann. “Unfortunately, I was arrested before it could come to a conclusion. But the conclusion was not very far [away].”
At one point, Mr. Ghosn called the Nissan-Renault-Mitsubishi alliance all but dead in his absence, noting that the first two companies have lost billions of dollars of value since 2017 (Nissan shares have lost 30 per cent in the past year; Renault is down 24 per cent). He said the alliance cannot work on “consensus,” a suggestion that it was held together by the sheer force of his demanding personality.
Shortly after he finished his news conference, Japan’s Minister of Justice, Mori Masako, released a statement accusing Mr. Ghosn of “propagating false information on Japan’s legal system and its practice.”
Thursday morning, she told reporters that Mr. Ghosn’s accusations against Japan’s legal system are “absolutely intolerable”. Defending authorities’ jailing of Mr. Ghosn, Ms. Mori said that in Japan, a suspect can only be arrested with a warrant from the court upon review by a judge unlike in some countries where detention is possible without a warrant.
The ministry has said it will try to find a way to bring Mr. Ghosn back from Lebanon, even though it has no extradition treaty with Japan.
“If defendant Ghosn has anything to say, it is my strong hope that he engage in all possible efforts to make his case within Japan’s fair criminal justice proceedings, and that he seek justice rendered by a Japanese court,” Ms. Mori said.
Japanese prosecutors charged Mr. Ghosn with a variety of offences, including understating his income, dumping some of his investment losses on Nissan and funnelling millions of dollars into a car dealership he controlled. He projected images of some documents onto a board that, he claimed, help to prove his innocence.
He spent much of his Beirut appearance delivering a scathing rebuke of the Japanese justice system. He said he endured “more than 400 days of inhumane treatment” that included long stints in isolation, marathon interrogation systems without his lawyer present, no access to electronics and shabby sanitary conditions. The incarceration was designed to break him, he said. “It will get worse if you just don’t confess, the prosecutor told me repeatedly.”
Interpol has issued a “red notice,” which seeks an arrest with a view to extradition, for Mr. Ghosn.
With a report from Reuters
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