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Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn’s ‘Great Escape’ Writes a Hollywood Ending to Japanese Imprisonment

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TOKYO—Former Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn has made a dramatic escape from Japan, where he was under house arrest, and has now found refuge in Lebanon, where he grew up and owns a home. And if his saga sounds like something out of cinematic thriller, well, stay tuned. Roughly a week before Ghosn made it to Beirut, he was cheerfully discussing a possible movie version of his life with a mega-Hollywood producer in his Tokyo home. 

A friend of Ghosn says, “He was keen on the idea of a documentary or film exposing his unjust treatment by the Japanese criminal justice system. I asked him, ‘What do you think will be the conclusion?’

“He made a tiny smile and said, ‘Oh, it will be a surprise ending.’”

Surprise, surprise! 

Carlos Ghosn who once found himself trapped in a dire scenario scripted by the Japanese government, Tokyo prosecutors, and a dubious faction of Nissan, has rewritten the narrative. He has now what appears to be a happy ending. And perhaps even Japan’s elite secretly are happy to see him gone. Almost everyone saves face; almost everyone wins. 

Ghosn is under indictment on several charges of financial crimes and breach of trust in Japan. His trial was supposed to begin next year, but it seems he decided he did not want to spend the next decade in a Japanese prison cell. (He’s already spent over four months in jail here even though he hasn’t been convicted of anything.) 

As early as November 2017, the Japanese government and some executives at Nissan, fearing that Renault would take over the once completely Japanese run company, began planning to get rid of Carlos Ghosn—by any means possible. 

A former METI (Ministry of Economy Trade and Industry) official who had been put on the board of Nissan worked with Hari Nada and another Nissan executive to launch an internal probe to see if they could find anything that could take Ghosn out of the picture. 

When it became apparent that Nissan was going to be put under the control of Renault in spring of 2018, and no longer be equal in the partnership, Nissan executives than consulted with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s legal advisor, former special prosecutor Akihide Kumada. They wanted to know the feasibility of a plea bargain that would allow prosecutors to put Ghosn in jail, but spare those loyal to the greater interests of a “Japanese” Nissan.  

As reported in Litera and other Japanese media, Kumada functions as a special counsel for the ruling political party in Japan, headed by Abe, and set up meetings with the Tokyo Special Prosecutor Office. Two or more Nissan executives made cooperation agreements with the Ministry of Justice  guaranteeing them criminal immunity—all they had to do was turn over evidence damaging to their former boss. The phrase “two or more” is frustrating to use but the Tokyo Prosecutors refuse to divulge, even to the defense, how many people at Nissan cut a deal with them. 

Ghosn has called it a conspiracy, and  you look up the strict definition—“a secret agreement made between two or more people or groups to do something bad or illegal that will harm someone else”—that’s clearly what it was. 

At first it worked out well—an almost perfect plot. The Tokyo Prosecutor Special Investigator’s office used new plea bargaining rules to put together what it hoped would be a slam-dunk case. Japan only allowed plea-bargaining from 2018 onward, and while the Ghosn case is not the first to use the system, it is the most spectacular and controversial. 

Nissan executives lured Ghosn back to Japan on false pretenses. On November 19 last year at Haneda Airport, prosecutors boarded his private jet, arrested him, and took him away on the spot. The initial charges related to Ghosn under-reporting his income, were flimsy allegations that would normally never result in the arrest of a Japanese CEO. The world and Ghosn were caught off guard. 

The plan, according to one source close to the prosecutor’s office, was to detain Ghosn, shake him, interrogate him and then he would confess to some of the charges, resign, and all problems would be solved. 

Unfortunately for that scenario, Ghosn he did not confess. And thus he was suddenly introduced to what many call Japan’s ‘hostage justice’ system where a suspect can be held up to 23 days before even being charged. 

He was held for the maximum time the law allowed, then indicted and and then rearrested. He was detained in solitary confinement for a total of 108 days after his initial arrest, and that was just round one. 

During that time, as is par for the course in this country, prosecutors interrogated him for hours each day without the presence of a lawyer.  They relied heavily on what many have now described as a flawed and biased Nissan investigation, without independence or integrity—as former Nissan officials are now saying. The prosecutors spoon fed the press dubious information in an attempt to discredit Ghosn, and they refused to talk to people who might exonerate the accused. 

Ghosn was allowed out on bail for the first time on March 5, 2019, with a bond of 1 billion yen ($9 million). He left the detention center on March 6 disguised as a manual laborer but looking more like Mario from Donkey Kong, which earned him some ridicule. 

In April, Ghosn made the mistake of announcing in tweets that were in Japanese and English that he would hold a press conference. The prosecutors swiftly rearrested him on April 4 in a 6:00 a.m. raid, and he was back in solitary. 

“Nissan’s choice to use criminal charges as a blunt object to get rid of their former CEO has been a self-inflicted wound.”

Ghosn was out on bail a second time on April 25, but the prosecutor and the court originally put in place harsh conditions that prohibited him from seeing or speaking with his wife, and additional funds were required. He also had to live at a registered domestic address—a problem when many people in Tokyo refused to rent him a place, fearing retaliation. His use of personal computers and even meeting others was strictly limited. He was prohibited from leaving the country.

One of his lawyers, Takashi Takano, said, “The restrictions are so severe they even handicap his ability to mount an effective defense to the charges brought against him.”

Ghosn may actually be guilty of some of what he is accused of doing—charges which include siphoning off funds from Nissan for his own personal use. If so, so be it. But it is extremely unlikely a Japanese CEO or crony of Shinzo Abe would be prosecuted for doing the same things. Even a suspected rapist gets to avoid the indignity of arrest, confinement and interrogation, if he knows the right people in Japan. 

The whole Nissan case has played out very poorly in the court of public opinion. It cast a negative light on Japan’s criminal justice system. It has made any talented foreigners wary of working for a Japanese company. Most of the best non-Japanese executives at Nissan already have left—or been forced out. 

Nissan’s reputation has been severely damaged and the company’s choice to use criminal charges as a blunt object to get rid of their former CEO has been a self-inflicted wound, destroying billions of dollars worth of shareholder value. In layman’s terms, if you owned Nissan stock, you’ve lost a lot of money. 

Ghosn’s legal trial was supposed to begin in April of 2020 but he never expected it to be fair—and it’s easy to understand why.

As reported in The New York Times, Japan’s prosecutors have refused to share thousands of files with the defense, which shows the cozy relationship they have with Nissan,but also illustrates an essential truth about criminal prosecutors in Japan. Japanese prosecutors generally don’t care about justice, they care about winning. They routinely drop about half of all cases brought to them, but once someone is indicted, the conviction rate is 99 percent. No prosecutor in Japan wants to be in humiliating 1 percent loser category. 

For Ghosn, who has come to understand that system and those odds well, the only chance of winning seemed to be running. No one is yet sure how Carlos Ghosn made it out of the country but the French media is reporting that he arrived on a private jet in Beirut on December 30.

Some Lebanese media have claimed he was smuggled out of the country in a box designed for transporting musical instruments.  What is not clear is how he escaped Japanese surveillance and the people watching him. The Japanese government today announced that it had no record of him leaving the country. 

Curiously, about 10 days prior to Ghosn’s departure, on December 20, Japanese State Minister for Foreign Affairs Keisuke Suzuki, visited Lebanon for the first time in the last three years.  It seems like an unusual coincidence. 

Indeed, there are many in the Japanese government who wanted the Ghosn problem to fade away before the 2020 Olympics: “Come to Japan, and stay an extra 23 days in solitary confinement if you’re even suspected of a crime!” is not a good slogan for tourism. 

“A Lebanese phoenix will not be scorched by a Japanese sun.”

— Lebanese Interior Minister Nohad Machnouk speaking last year

With Ghosn gone, Japan Inc.’s PR problems are gone as well.  But for right now, all that the official release about Minister Suzuki’s Lebanon sojourn tells us is that he conducted “courtesy calls on President Michel Aoun…and exchanged views on various bilateral cooperation and the current situation in Lebanon.” 

We don’t know if they discussed Carlos Ghosn but one thing is certainly clear—Carlos Ghosn is there now. He’s told us so. And he is welcome. Soon after his arrest last year, digital billboards went up all over Beirut proclaiming “WE ARE ALL CARLOS GHOSN” and “WE ARE ALL FREE,” while Lebanon’s interior minister vowed, “A Lebanese phoenix will not be scorched by a Japanese sun.” Meanwhile Ghosn’s Ixsir Winery in Batroûn reportedly continues to prosper.

Here is Ghosn’s official statement sent from his media representatives: 

“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. I have not fled justice—I have escaped injustice and political persecution. I can now finally communicate freely with the media, and look forward to starting next week.”

Full disclosure: In August of this year (2019), I managed to arrange a clandestine meeting with Carlos Ghosn while working on an article for the monthly French magazine Capital. He wanted to know about the Mark Karpeles case and I agreed to discuss it with him. 

For those who aren’t familiar with the case, Karpeles was a French CEO in Japan who ran what was once the world’s biggest bitcoin exchange—until it was hacked. The police, wrongly suspecting that Karpeles was the culprit, arrested him and kept him in jail for months on other charges, hoping he would confess. He did not. Eventually he was found not guilty. The judges even scolded the prosecutors for their heavy-handed approach. 

Ghosn and I met at the Grand Hyatt and had a talk in the second floor restaurant, The French Kitchen, in what used to be the smoking section. The conditions of our talk included a request that I not quote him directly, because, as he’d already learned, even talking about talking to journalists when you’re facing trial in Japan in a high-profile case is likely to get you put in jail. 

While I had to keep quiet (at the time),  Ghosn, on the other hand, had to tell the prosecutors that he was meeting me and why. He seemed slightly distracted and a shade of his former self, but also ardent in his claims of innocence. He was very thin, his air greyer, but he had started working out with a personal trainer and there was still fire in his eyes.

“Carlos Ghosn is an arrogant prick and there are many reasons why people in Japan and abroad don’t like him, but that doesn’t mean he’s guilty.”

— The lede Jake Adelstein read to Carlos Ghosn when they met

He asked me if I was going to write more about his case and I told him yes. I said I had already written the first line of the article which was:

“Carlos Ghosn is an arrogant prick and there are many reasons why people in Japan and abroad don’t like him, but that doesn’t mean he’s guilty.” 

He was not amused. 

He wanted to know if the Karpeles verdict should give him hope. “Only if you believe in miracles,” I said. “However, when you tell the prosecutors you’ve been discussing his case that will annoy them and make them unhappy. They hate being defeated, even a little bit.”

He smiled faintly.

I think that many of us, given the choice between spending the next decade in a small tatami room in solitary where the lights are never off and exercise is limited to a few times a week, versus living in our home in Beirut with easy access to our winery—would choose the latter. 

Even former special prosecutor Nobuo Gohara seems sympathetic. He tweeted after the news of Ghosn’s escape broke, “I feel sorry for his lawyers and it’s a shame he betrayed the understanding of the court. However, what is really important is what is to follow. The investigation conducted by the prosecutors in Ghosn’s case was incredible bullshit (detarame). Even if the Japanese government demands Ghosn to be extradited to Japan, do you think that will go over well with international society? I think we can say this is no longer just a problem of the law in provincial Japan.”

Now we can look forward to the movie.

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