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January 8, 2020 9:45 AM, EST

Carlos Ghosn Goes on Offensive in First Appearance Since Escape

Carlos GhosnCarlos Ghosn speaks in Beirut on Jan. 8. (Hasan Shaaban/Bloomberg)

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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 Jan. 8, 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, Ghosn, 65, 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.

“I felt I was a hostage of a country that I had served for 17 years,” Ghosn said, in an emotional reaction toward his treatment in Japan after helping rescue Nissan from near-collapse two decades ago.

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 accused Japanese prosecutors, government officials and Nissan executives of conspiring to topple him to prevent a further integration of the Japanese carmaker with Renault.

 Hiroto Saikawa

Saikawa

Ghosn named former Nissan CEO Hiroto Saikawa, Hitoshi Kawaguchi and Masakazu Toyoda among those involved in the plot against him. Saikawa, Ghosn’s successor-turned-accuser lost his own job less than a year later over his own overcompensation scandal.

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 has 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.

“I am here to expose a system of justice that violates the most basic principles of humanity,” Ghosn said at the press conference. “These allegations are untrue and I should never have been arrested.”

He laid the blame for his treatment not only on the prosecutors, but also on government officials, Nissan and its law firm. Because they leaked false information and withheld information that might have helped him, Ghosn said he was presumed guilty without the ability to clear his name.

“My unimaginable ordeal over the past 14 months was the result of an orchestrated campaign spearheaded by a handful of unscrupulous, vindictive individuals at Nissan and at the Latham & Watkins law firm, with the support of the Tokyo prosecutor’s office,” Ghosn said.

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 Jan. 7, Tokyo prosecutors pushed back, obtaining an arrest warrant for Carole Ghosn on suspicion of giving false testimony.

“This is exactly how it works,” Ghosn said, calling the move part of Japan’s intimidation tactics.

Nissan also went on the offensive Jan. 7, saying its internal investigation in the leadup 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” 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 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.”

With assistance from Nour Al Ali, Tara Patel and Kenneth Wong.

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