Ghosn's Escape Months in Making -- WSJ

Date : 01/02/2020 @ 4:02PM
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Ghosn's Escape Months in Making -- WSJ

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Lebanese government had asked Japan to let the former Nissan chief face trial in Beirut

By Nick Kostov, Rory Jones and David Gauthier-Villars 

This article is being republished as part of our daily reproduction of WSJ.com articles that also appeared in the U.S. print edition of The Wall Street Journal (January 2, 2020).

Carlos Ghosn's escape to Lebanon from Japan followed months of planning by associates aimed at getting the former head of the Renault-Nissan alliance to a country they believed would provide a more friendly legal environment to try the claims of financial wrongdoing against him, according to people familiar with the matter.

The Lebanese government had for months been asking Tokyo to send Mr. Ghosn -- a Lebanese citizen -- to Beirut, where it proposed he would stand trial on corruption charges, according to a senior Lebanese official. Japanese authorities arrested Mr. Ghosn in late 2018 and have accused the former chief of automakers Renault SA, Nissan Motor Co. and Mitsubishi Motors Corp. of a series of financial crimes, which he denies.

Mr. Ghosn was spirited from his court-monitored residence in Tokyo over the weekend onto a private jet, bound for Turkey, and then continued by plane to Lebanon, landing there early Monday morning, the people said. The Tokyo District Court told Japanese media on Wednesday it formally revoked Mr. Ghosn's release on bail, which means the government will confiscate the Yen1.5 billion ($13.8 million) in bail money he paid.

Mr. Ghosn grew up in Lebanon and enjoys broad popularity as a globally successful businessman. Lebanon's ambassador to Japan was a frequent visitor of Mr. Ghosn when he was in jail there. Lebanese officials said he entered the country legally and wasn't subject to any restrictions.

Upon his return to Lebanon, Mr. Ghosn met up with his wife, Carole Ghosn, who played a role in the operation, the people said. In a text message to The Wall Street Journal, Mrs. Ghosn described being reunited with her husband as the "best gift of my life."

The Lebanese government had no knowledge ahead of time of Mr. Ghosn's plans to flee to Lebanon, according to Salim Jreissati, minister of state for presidential affairs. In an interview, he said the government hasn't had any contact with Japanese officials and was awaiting more details from Mr. Ghosn, who is expected to address the media next week.

"The Lebanese government had nothing to do with his escape," Mr. Jreissati said. "We have no idea at all about the circumstances of his departure."

Well ahead of Mr. Ghosn's escape, however, Mr. Jreissati said Lebanon repeatedly wrote to Japanese officials asking that Mr. Ghosn be handed over to Lebanon and tried according to the United Nations Convention against Corruption, to which Lebanon is a signatory. Japan didn't respond, Mr. Jreissati said. The Lebanese minister said he reiterated that position to Japan's Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Keisuke Suzuki when he visited Beirut last month. Mr. Suzuki didn't immediately respond to an email to his office.

Lebanese law allows for citizens, like Mr. Ghosn, to be prosecuted for crimes committed overseas, as long as the offense is also a crime in Lebanon. Mr. Jreissati said the Lebanese government wouldn't bring a case against Mr. Ghosn until it received evidence from Japan.

An international shift in legal jurisdictions for such a high-profile criminal case would be highly unusual. Japanese prosecutors have faced months of international scrutiny over a legal system Mr. Ghosn says is skewed against him.

But Lebanon's highly sectarian and unstable government -- and the country's endemic corruption -- would also raise global scrutiny over the ability of any trial there to be conducted fairly. Mr. Jreissati didn't respond to a question on the fairness of a trial in Lebanon.

Mr. Ghosn's plan, according to a person familiar with it, is to clear his name by seeking a trial in Lebanon. Mr. Ghosn's advocates believe that under Lebanese law, prosecutors there could work with Japanese counterparts to bring a case -- albeit in conditions Mr. Ghosn regards as more favorable than those in Japan, according to this person.

Japanese prosecutors haven't yet commented on the move, but have previously defended their legal system and said Mr. Ghosn would get a fair trial.

Mr. Ghosn is charged there with financial crimes, including causing Nissan to fail to report more than $80 million in planned future income on the company's financial statements and directing Nissan money to be spent for his personal benefit.

Mr. Ghosn's escape surprised his own lawyer in Japan. Junichiro Hironaka said he last saw Mr. Ghosn on Dec. 25, and was planning to meet him again in January. He said, without providing details, that Mr. Ghosn's flight might have taken a "big organization" to arrange. He said the legal team was still holding Mr. Ghosn's French, Lebanese and Brazilian passports.

Mr. Ghosn's decision to take flight has its roots in what he perceived to be his mistreatment by a legal system that he believes is stacked against defendants. "I have not fled justice -- I have escaped injustice and political persecution," he said in a statement emailed to reporters on Tuesday morning. He complained of "a rigged Japanese justice system where guilt is presumed."

Mr. Ghosn, who claims he was victimized in a Nissan-Renault tug-of-war, spent more than four months in jail, over two stints, before the court ordered his release on bail in late April. He particularly bristled at restrictions that the court placed on his contact with his wife, according to people familiar with the matter.

Then the court gave Mr. Ghosn what he took as a double insult for Christmas, according to people familiar with the matter. First, it denied his request to have contact with his wife for the holidays. And at a Christmas Day hearing, he believed the court was dragging its feet on setting a date for the trial, leading him to fear the legal process might take years, the people said.

"He couldn't see his wife. He couldn't get dates for his trial," one of the people said. "It was humiliation. It was moral torture."

Behind the scenes, according to people familiar with the matter, Mr. Ghosn's advisers had been studying several scenarios to spare him a Japanese trial, where more than 99% of those indicted are convicted, according to official statistics. Lawyers and family members appealed to French leaders to intervene, for instance. They also looked at what would happen if he ended up in France, Brazil or the U.S., according to one person familiar with the matter.

It couldn't be learned exactly how Mr. Ghosn was able to slip away from Japanese authorities in order to get on the private jet that spirited him out of the country. Mr. Ghosn had been living in a house in Tokyo. While he was permitted to leave the house, he had been required to stay in the country pending his trial.

Flight-tracking data details only one journey that matches Mr. Ghosn's movements between Japan and Lebanon. A long-range Bombardier business jet left Kansai International Airport near Osaka -- about a six-hour drive west from Tokyo -- on Sunday at 11:10 p.m. Traversing Russian airspace, the plane arrived Monday morning at Ataturk Airport in Istanbul, according to flight-tracking data. A smaller jet operated by the same company, Turkey-based MNG Jet Havacilik AS, left the airport for Beirut just over half an hour later, the data show.

A person who answered the phone at MNG Jet declined to comment.

On Wednesday, Turkish Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu was quoted by daily newspaper Hurriyet as saying that he had found no trace in official records of Mr. Ghosn making a recent stopover in Turkey.

Mr. Ghosn entered Lebanon with a French passport and a Lebanese identification card, according to a person familiar with the matter. That's despite his Japanese lawyer saying his team had possession of at least one French passport.

Mr. Ghosn is staying in Lebanon with his wife in a family house, which has a surveillance system, according to people familiar with the matter. Mr. Ghosn fears being snatched and returned to Japan, one of the people said.

--Mark Maremont, Nazih Osseiran and Sean McLain contributed to this article.

Write to Nick Kostov at Nick.Kostov@wsj.com, Rory Jones at rory.jones@wsj.com and David Gauthier-Villars at David.Gauthier-Villars@wsj.com

 

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

January 02, 2020 02:47 ET (07:47 GMT)

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