Carlos Ghosn Goes on the Offensive in First Appearance Since Escape

Carlos Ghosn

(Bloomberg) –Carlos Ghosn went on the attack against Japan’s criminal justice system less than two weeks after becoming the world’s most famous fugitive with a daring escape to Lebanon.

“I was brutally taken from my world as I knew it,” the former head of Nissan Motor Co. and Renault SA said in Beirut on Wednesday, addressing a press conference for the first time since his arrest for financial crimes over a year ago. “I was ripped from my family, my friends, from my communities, and from Renault, Nissan and Mitsubishi.”

Ghosn’s flight from Japan, an escape worthy of a Hollywood spy thriller, marked the latest twist in a saga that began with his stunning arrest at Tokyo’s Haneda airport in November of 2018. Now free to speak his mind, the 65-year-old is seeking to salvage his legacy, blighted by allegations of understating his income and raiding corporate resources for personal gain at Nissan. He’s also under investigation in France.

After more than a year in Japan’s criminal justice system, including months locked in a cell, Ghosn has scores to settle. Proclaiming his innocence, he has accused Japanese prosecutors and government officials of conspiring to topple him.

Earlier, his team attacked Nissan, saying the Yokohama-based automaker had sacrificed him. “That investigation was never about finding the truth,” they said in a statement. “It was initiated and carried out for the specific, predetermined purpose of taking down Carlos Ghosn to prevent him from further integrating Nissan and Renault.”

Ghosn was facing trials that could have landed him in prison for more than a decade when, last week, he bolted to Lebanon in a private jet from Osaka’s Kansai International Airport to escape what he described as a “rigged Japanese justice system.” The Mediterranean country doesn’t have an extradition agreement with Japan.

Now that he’s slipped from Japan’s grasp, Ghosn is taking his case to the court of public opinion — an arena where he gained a wealth of experience during two decades as one of the world’s most prominent and media-savvy business leaders.

His arrest cast an unflattering light on Japan’s legal system, where prosecutors can grill suspects repeatedly without their lawyers present and enjoy an almost 100% conviction rate. Under the terms of Ghosn’s bail, the court had restricted contact with his family, including his wife Carole, with whom he was forbidden to speak without seeking permission. On Tuesday, Tokyo prosecutors pushed back, obtaining an arrest warrant for Carole Ghosn on suspicion of giving false testimony.

Nissan also went on the offensive Tuesday, saying its internal investigation in the lead-up to Ghosn’s arrest found “incontrovertible evidence of various acts of misconduct” by the former executive. Nissan pledged to take “appropriate legal action” against him for any harm caused to the company.

The carmaker has already spent more than $200 million on lawyers, investigators, and digital forensics in its investigation of Ghosn and former executive Greg Kelly, people with knowledge of the matter said, asking not to be identified because the information isn’t public. Kelly, who remains in Japan, has also denied wrongdoing.

Ghosn helped lead Nissan back from the brink two decades ago, following its rescue by Renault. It made him a hero in Japan for a time, complete with a manga, or comic series, celebrating his corporate exploits. As the alliance between Renault and Nissan prospered — bringing in Mitsubishi Motors Corp. in 2016 — Ghosn became the indispensable man at the center of the partnership.

Yet his compensation led to persistent criticism in Japan and France, and resentment grew at Nissan over the lopsided shareholder structure that left Renault with 43% of the Japanese carmaker, while Nissan owns just 15% of Renault. Given its bigger size and superior earnings performance in recent years, Nissan has sought more sway in the alliance, including a reduction in Renault’s stake.

Ghosn’s pledge to “speak freely” at the media conference has fueled concern his remarks could rekindle the mutual suspicion that has plagued relations between the carmakers since his arrest.

Emerging accounts of Ghosn’s escape while under near round-the-clock surveillance have transfixed the business world.

On Sunday, Dec. 29, he reportedly left his house in Tokyo, wearing a hat and a surgical-style mask, and took a bullet train to Osaka. That evening a Bombardier jet took off from the private-jet terminal of Kansai International Airport bound for Istanbul — with Ghosn apparently concealed in a large black case that was too big to fit into the airport’s baggage-scanning machines.

Reaching Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport, he changed planes while inside a box. The second jet took off shortly after for the brief flight to Beirut.

In Lebanon, where Ghosn grew up and has citizenship, he’s highly regarded for his business successes, and has even appeared on a postage stamp. Shortly after his arrest in Tokyo in 2018, a Beirut billboard proclaimed: “We are all Carlos Ghosn.”

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