Nissan’s former Chairman Carlos Ghosn said Tuesday from Lebanon 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 condition 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 the 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 of 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.
Hironaka told reporters Tuesday afternoon 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 he was puzzled as to how he could have left the country.
The last time he spoke to Ghosn was last Wednesday, 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 New Year’s holidays in Japan.
“Maybe he thought he won’t get a fair trial,” Hironaka said, stressing 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.
Ghosn had posted 1.5 billion yen ($14 million) bail on two separate releases. Ghosn had been rearrested on additional charges after an earlier release.
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, she said: “I was [as] 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.
Nissan did not have immediate comment. 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 through 2017. Nissan has said it accepted the penalty and had corrected its securities documents in May.
Its 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 Nissan former 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 its 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.
Ghosn’s case has drawn intense media attention in Japan. In one instance 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.