January 2, 2020 11:30 AM, EST

Japan Officials Silent Over Ghosn Escape

Carlos GhosnCarlos Ghosn, former chairman of Nissan Motor Co., center, sits in a vehicle as he left his lawyer's office in Tokyo on March 6, 2019. (Takaaki Iwabu/Bloomberg News)

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Since news emerged on New Year’s Eve that fallen auto titan Carlos Ghosn skipped bail and fled the country, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has been camped out in a luxury Tokyo hotel, sharing meals with family, hitting the gym and even playing golf.

The routine, seen in detailed schedules published by major Japanese media outlets, is nothing unusual for the prime minister during the country’s most important holiday of the year. But it’s particularly notable after the dramatic escape of the leading figure in one of Japan’s most high-profile white-collar criminal cases ever.

Abe has made no public comment on Ghosn since Ghosn fled, nor have any of his ministers. Officials at the prime minister’s office and the foreign ministry repeatedly declined to comment when reached by email or phone. Japan goes back to work Jan. 6.

“It is a rather embarrassing situation, no matter how it played out,” said Jeff Kingston, a professor of Asian Studies at Temple University Japan campus who writes frequently about Japanese politics. “I’d say the Japanese government is trying to turn the page and let a bad story die. The smart way would be let the prosecutors, the police and immigration deal with it, because they are the ones who fell down on the job.”

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe

Abe by Wang Zhao/Bloomberg News

Abe already has seen his popularity fall in recent months due to a series of scandals that have affected his government. Still, he has repeatedly weathered similar setbacks since taking office to become the country’s longest-serving premier.

Ghosn, who faced trial for financial crimes in Tokyo, secretly fled to Lebanon late last month to escape what he called Japan’s “rigged” justice system. Lebanon, where the former head of Nissan Motor Co. and Renault SA grew up and has citizenship, provides legal protection against extradition.

Apart from the holidays, one reason for the long silence could be that Abe has limited tools to get Ghosn back to Japan. Lebanon’s foreign ministry has said Ghosn entered the country legally, and it wasn’t aware how he fled.

But Lebanon’s caretaker justice minister said the country would probe the allegations against Ghosn if Japan seeks the return of the fallen automotive titan. Albert Sarhan, the outgoing minister, said in an interview that a request for custody of Ghosn would be turned down and the matter referred to the judiciary in Lebanon.

“First, we reject the request made for that person, and secondly we refer them to the public prosecution” or the judiciary, said Sarhan. “We probe the accusations out of respect for other countries.”

The state-run National News Agency reported Jan. 2 that Lebanon’s public prosecutor had received an Interpol red notice on Ghosn. The notice obliges the Lebanese authorities to question Ghosn on the allegations. Separately, Japan is expected to contact Lebanon through diplomatic channels, an official said Jan. 1 in Tokyo.

Japan and Lebanon have a history of tussling over fugitives. The nations wrangled for years over Tokyo’s request for the extradition of five members of the Japanese Red Army terrorist group, which carried out a series of bloody attacks in the 1970s. Lebanon refused to hand them over but in 2000 sent four of them to Jordan, which handed them over to Japan. It granted asylum to a fifth.

Japan itself has a history of declining to deport a high-profile suspect sought for trial in another country. Former Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori took refuge in Japan, where he was widely admired, for five years starting in 2000. He was eventually arrested during a trip to Chile and returned to Lima, where he was sentenced to 25 years for ordering death-squad killings.

“Japan will have to negotiate with the Lebanese government for a handover,” former State Minister for Foreign Affairs Masahisa Sato said on Twitter. “Ghosn is a hero, and it won’t be easy.”

Mystery still surrounds Ghosn’s escape. The executive, once lionized in Japan for turning around Nissan from years of losses, said in an emailed statement Dec. 31 he was fleeing the country’s “rigged” justice system, where courts have a conviction rate close to 100%.

For months, Ghosn’s attorneys have been arguing that all of the charges against their client were bogus, the result of a broad conspiracy among nationalistic Nissan officials, Japanese prosecutors and the government itself.

The goal, according to Ghosn, was to smear him in order to prevent the executive from further integrating Nissan and France’s Renault, a plan that threatened the Japanese carmaker’s autonomy and was vehemently opposed in the highest echelons of Tokyo officialdom.

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