TOKYO – 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.
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.
In the first official Lebanese comment on Ghosn's arrival, state minister for presidential affairs Selim Jreissati told the An-Nahar newspaper that Ghosn entered Lebanon legally through the airport with his French passport and his Lebanese ID.
Jreissati told the paper that in a meeting with Japan's deputy foreign minister, he presented a file to the Japanese authorities asking for Ghosn to be handed over to be tried in Lebanon according to international anti-corruption laws, of which Lebanon is a signatory. He added that since there was no official word from Japan and it was not yet clear how Ghosn came to Lebanon, the government there will take no formal stance.
Jreissati did not immediately respond to calls from The Associated Press.
The Lebanese General Security, which is in charge of border crossings and foreigners, said Ghosn had entered the country legally and there was no reason to take any action against him.
Ghosn had posted 1.5 billion yen ($14 million) 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.
The Lebanon-based newspaper Al-Joumhouriya said Ghosn arrived in Beirut from Turkey aboard a private jet.
The French government reacted with both surprise and confusion.
“Mr. Carlos Ghosn is not above the laws, be they French or Japanese,” said Agnes Pannier-Runacher, a junior finance minister. But she added that “he has French nationality and we owe him consular support, as we owe all French nationals.”
Speaking to broadcaster BFM-TV, she said, “I was surprised as you when I learned about this escape.”
Ghosn was credited with leading a spectacular turnaround at Nissan beginning in the late 1990s, rescuing the automaker from near-bankruptcy.
People in Lebanon took special pride in the auto industry icon, who speaks fluent Arabic and visited the country regularly. Born in Brazil, where his Lebanese grandfather had sought his fortune, Ghosn grew up in Beirut, where he spent part of his childhood at a Jesuit school.
Before his fall from grace, Ghosn was also a celebrity in Japan, revered for his managerial acumen.
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 ($22 million) 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% 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.
Associated Press writers Sarah El Deeb and Zeina Karam in Beirut and John Leicester in Paris contributed to this report.
Yuri Kageyama is on Twitter at https://twitter.com/yurikageyama