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Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Three passports and a plan hatched in Lebanon: Ghosn’s escape act

It was a cinematic escape, carried out just before New Year’s Day, Japan’s most important holiday, when government agencies and most businesses close for as long as a week.

By: New York Times | Tokyo | Published: January 1, 2020 1:41:57 pm
Carlos Ghosn, former chief of the Nissan and Renault. (File photo, source: Reuters)

Written by Ben Dooley and Michael Corkery

By the time most of Japan had woken up on Tuesday, he was gone. One of the country’s most famous criminal suspects had slipped past the cameras trained on his house, past the police and border guards and the Japanese citizens who for the past year have followed his every move.

Carlos Ghosn, the deposed chief of the Nissan and Renault auto empire facing charges of financial wrongdoing, had fled to Lebanon, and no one in Japan — not the authorities, the media or even the auto executive’s own lawyer — could explain how it had happened.

“I want to ask him, ‘How could you do this to us?’” Ghosn’s lawyer in Tokyo, Junichiro Hironaka, told a crush of 40 reporters outside his office on Tuesday.

It was a cinematic escape, carried out just before New Year’s Day, Japan’s most important holiday, when government agencies and most businesses close for as long as a week.

The escape appeared to have been planned in Lebanon. A lawyer for Ghosn in Beirut played a lead role putting the plan together and acted as the go-between with the Lebanese government, one person familiar with the matter said.

An official in Beirut said Ghosn had entered the country using a French passport, while at least one Lebanese outlet reported, without offering proof, that the former Nissan chairman had been spirited out inside a box meant for musical equipment.

He chose refuge in Lebanon, where he grew up and has been treated as a folk hero since his 2018 arrest in Japan. A Lebanese newspaper reported that Ghosn had arrived in Beirut on a private plane from Turkey. After landing there, he released a statement assailing the “rigged Japanese justice system where guilt is presumed, discrimination is rampant, and basic human rights are denied.”

In the statement, he said he was ready to tell his story to the media “starting next week.” A public relations professional has been dispatched from the United States to Beirut to help organize a news conference, the person familiar with the matter said.

Government officials in Japan were still trying to piece together the facts of the escape, as the aggressive local media scrambled for clues. Lebanon has no extradition treaty with Japan. Some politicians in Japan wondered whether shadowy figures or even a foreign government had been involved in his escape.

On Twitter, Masahisa Sato, a member of the upper house of Japan’s Parliament and a former top Foreign Ministry official, asked whether Ghosn “had the support of some country” in his departure.

“It’s a huge problem that his illegal escape from Japan was allowed so easily,” he wrote.

The former governor of Tokyo, Yoichi Masuzoe, accused the Lebanese Embassy of helping to smuggle Ghosn out.

“It’s a diplomat’s work to exfiltrate Lebanon’s national hero,” he wrote, providing no evidence. Calls to the Lebanese Embassy went unanswered.

Apparently caught flat-footed, Japanese prosecutors rushed to ask a Tokyo court to rescind Ghosn’s bail, according to national broadcaster NHK, possibly leaving him to forfeit the $9 million that he had paid for the privilege of living outside jail while he awaited trial.

Ghosn had turned over his passports to his lawyer, as a court had ordered, while he prepared for trial living in an elegant neighborhood in central Tokyo.

His lawyer, too, seemed dumbfounded by the Houdini-like disappearance.

Addressing the reporters outside his Tokyo office, Hironaka said Ghosn’s departure was “totally unexpected.”

There had been no sign that Ghosn was preparing to flee, Hironaka said. To the contrary, he added, everything suggested that Ghosn had been preparing to defend himself in court.

Ghosn’s bail conditions limited his phone use, and he spent most of his days in his lawyer’s office, the only place he was allowed to use the internet. For months, he had been commuting from his home to meet with his lawyers and prepare for his trial.

All the while, a court-ordered camera monitored his doorway, recording his comings and goings. Whenever he went out, he suspected that authorities and private investigators from Nissan followed him around the city, according to people familiar with the matter.

Ghosn spoke with his wife, Carole, for about an hour Dec. 24, Hironaka said. Prosecutors had asked a judge to forbid the couple to contact each other over concerns that they might conspire to tamper with evidence or witnesses. The court had kept the couple from communicating for months, Hironaka said, and they had spoken only twice since Ghosn was rearrested in April.

Nevertheless, Ghosn stayed in touch with his family. His daughter Maya visited him in Tokyo, according to people familiar with his movements. And his outings with his children would occasionally be reported by the Japanese press or pop up on social media, where commentators speculated about his welfare.

Hironaka said the legal team spent Christmas Day in court discussing preparations for Ghosn’s trial, which was expected to take place sometime in 2020.

The team had planned to regroup Jan. 7 for the first strategy session of the new year.

All three of Ghosn’s passports were in his lawyers’ possession, Hironaka said. It was one of the conditions of his bail, which his lawyers had won only after repeated, hard-fought attempts to convince the court that their client, with all of his wealth and power, was not a flight risk.

“He left his things here,” Hironaka told reporters. “It would have been difficult for him to do this without the assistance of some large organization.”

Ghosn’s defense team had repeatedly spoken out about what it described as a “hostage justice” system, complaining that Japanese courts and prosecutors had put him at an almost impossible disadvantage as he sought to defend himself.

“I wanted to prove he was innocent,” Hironaka said Tuesday. “But when I saw his statement in the press, I thought, ‘He doesn’t trust Japan’s courts.’”

The Japanese media rushed for clues as well, but news outlets were hampered by skeleton staffs and closed government offices before New Year’s Day. NHK reported that border control officials in Japan and Lebanon had no record of Ghosn’s leaving the country, speculating that he may have used a fake passport and an assumed name.

But in Lebanon, the minister for presidential affairs, Salim Jreissati, said late Tuesday that Ghosn had “entered the country legally using his French passport and Lebanese ID.”

He said the Lebanese government had not been notified in advance of his arrival, adding, “We were all surprised.

“The government has nothing to do with his decision to come,” he said. “We don’t know the circumstances of his arrival.”

In France, a deputy minister for economy and finance, Agnès Pannier-Runacher, said she had learned about Ghosn’s flight from news reports. “We have to understand what happened,” she said on France Inter radio.

Ghosn is not above the law, she said, and “if a foreign citizen fled the French justice system, we would be very angry.” But she noted that, as a French citizen, he could use the country’s consular services.

A group of children may have been among the last people to see him before he left Japan, according to a report in The Asahi Shimbun. It described the possible sighting on Friday morning in much the way one would an appearance by Bigfoot or the Loch Ness monster.

“His eyebrows stand out,” a 12-year-old girl told a reporter combing the streets near Ghosn’s home for clues about his disappearance.

“Everyone was saying to each other, ‘Isn’t that Ghosn?’”

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