TOKYO — Carlos Ghosn, the fallen head of the Nissan-Renault auto alliance, didn’t know much about making movies, but he seemed willing to learn.
Sitting in his rented home in a tony Tokyo neighborhood one day in December, he walked John Lesher, a Hollywood producer behind the Oscar-winning 2014 Michael Keaton film, “Birdman,” through the plot of his own story, describing what he sees as his unjust imprisonment by Japanese officials and his struggle to prove his innocence, said people familiar with the discussions.
The theme was redemption. The villain was the Japanese justice system.
The talks were preliminary and did not get far, the people said. And in any case, Mr. Ghosn was preparing to deliver a shocking plot twist.
Mr. Ghosn, who was facing a trial later in 2020, fled Japan for Lebanon this week, avoiding criminal charges of financial wrongdoing. All the elements of a Hollywood-style thriller are there: a private plane whisking a fugitive into the sky, multiple passports, rumors of shadowy forces at work and people in power denying they knew anything about it.
Mr. Ghosn’s conversations with Mr. Lesher could offer a glimpse into his thinking in the days before his escape from a country that had kept him under heavy surveillance for months.
Prosecutors had accused Mr. Ghosn of underreporting his compensation and temporarily shifting his personal financial losses onto Nissan’s books, and a court had let him out of jail on bail totaling $13.8 million. As proceedings dragged on, Mr. Ghosn studied the cases of prominent defendants who had fought Japan’s justice system. He became convinced that he could never get a fair trial in Japan, with its 99 percent conviction rate, people who know him say.
Authorities around the world are only beginning to piece together the details of his escape.
Officials in Turkey detained seven people who they believe helped Mr. Ghosn flee, according to Turkish news outlets, including the state-run Anadolu news agency. He left Japan late Sunday aboard a business jet from Osaka to Istanbul Ataturk Airport, where he boarded a second plane and flew to Beirut, they reported. Also, Interpol put out a “red notice” on Mr. Ghosn, a Lebanese official said. Such an alert, akin to a wanted poster, is issued for individuals wanted for prosecution or to serve a sentence.
Four of the seven people detained in Turkey were pilots employed by a private aviation company, two were employees of a company that provides ground services to aircraft, and one was a manager of a private cargo company, according to the Turkish reports.
Once in Beirut, Mr. Ghosn met Lebanon’s president, Michel Aoun, and spoke to him about his legal issues, according to a person with knowledge of the meeting who requested anonymity because the person was not authorized to discuss it. Mr. Aoun has denied the meeting.
In Japan, official silence continued as the authorities appeared to be looking for answers. On Thursday afternoon, Japanese prosecutors raided Mr. Ghosn’s two-story house in a leafy enclave of central Tokyo, just doors down from the home of the billionaire SoftBank founder Masayoshi Son.
Mr. Ghosn’s Japanese defense attorneys said they had been holding his French, Lebanese and Brazilian passports. But the Japanese national broadcaster NHK, citing anonymous sources, reported that a judge had allowed Mr. Ghosn to carry around a copy of his French passport in a locked case.
It is not clear exactly when Mr. Ghosn began planning his escape. But his meeting with Mr. Lesher was one of several that he had during his last months in Tokyo as he contemplated the ending to the story of his fight against the Japanese justice system. In discussions, he wondered whether a movie could make him more sympathetic.
He also wanted to learn how others had fought, even if they lost. In July, he met with Jake Adelstein, an American journalist who closely covers the Japanese criminal justice system, to discuss the prospects for his trial.
Mr. Adelstein had recently published a book on Mark Karpelès, the former head of cryptocurrency exchange Mt. Gox, who spent over five years in a bruising fight with Japan’s legal system after being charged with falsifying data, embezzlement and breach of trust. In March, Mr. Karpelès was found guilty on the first charge and received a sentence, which was suspended, of two and a half years in prison.
Mr. Adelstein said Mr. Ghosn had grilled him about the trial, seeking parallels with his own case and trying to understand the prosecutors’ approach.
“I told him, ‘They don’t care about justice, Carlos; they care about winning,’” said Mr. Adelstein, who wrote about Mr. Ghosn in The Daily Beast this week.
“The best-case scenario,” he said, “is you get a suspended sentence.” In the worst case, he warned, the 65-year-old Mr. Ghosn could be stranded in Japan for the rest of his life.
Mr. Ghosn also reached out to Takafumi Horie, an entrepreneur who was sentenced to two and a half years in jail after a conviction on violating securities laws.
In a video posted to YouTube on Tuesday, Mr. Horie said Mr. Ghosn had made an appointment through a third party to meet him in early January.
“He wanted to ask my opinions,” he said. “I still haven’t heard any of the details, but unfortunately, our dinner date was canceled.”
Speaking through a representative, Mr. Horie declined to comment.
Questions had swirled around the handling of Mr. Ghosn’s case from the moment Japanese prosecutors first detained him in November 2018.
Mr. Ghosn and his lawyers have argued that the arrest was a corporate coup aimed at stopping him from orchestrating a merger between Renault — controlled by the French government — and Nissan, one of the crown jewels of Japan’s auto industry.
Before he was released on bail, Mr. Ghosn spent weeks in solitary confinement, where he was subject to interrogation by prosecutors without his own lawyer present, drawing harsh comparisons with how executives held for financial crimes are treated in the United States and elsewhere.
Mr. Ghosn’s lead lawyer on the case, Junichiro Hironaka, and his team spent months condemning Japan’s system of “hostage justice,” as part of a public relations strategy aimed at questioning whether it was possible for Mr. Ghosn to get a fair trial in the country.
Regardless of the truth of the accusations against Mr. Ghosn, he found himself at a severe disadvantage as he prepared for trial.
Ultimately, Mr. Ghosn was arrested and indicted four times, detained and repeatedly interrogated for more than 130 days. As a condition of his bail, he was forbidden from almost all interactions with his son or wife, who prosecutors feared might help him tamper with witnesses.
His lawyers accused Nissan of becoming close to the prosecutors. For months, Nissan’s efforts to cooperate with the investigation were led by Hari Nada, a top official at the company who is expected to be a key witness against Mr. Ghosn. Internal documents from Nissan showed concerns within the company that the arrangement had created deep conflicts of interest, potentially compromising the investigation’s results.
The company has said the investigation was handled appropriately.
Japan has been sensitive to how its justice system has been portrayed. Soon after Mr. Ghosn’s 2018 arrest, Shin Kukimoto, the deputy head of the Tokyo prosecutor’s office, defended the way Mr. Ghosn had been treated.
“Each country has its own history and culture, and systems,” he said at the time. “I wonder if it’s appropriate to criticize our systems just because ours is different from others.”
Despite the challenges, Mr. Ghosn continued to insist that he would prove his innocence in court. In the months leading up to his escape, he spent most of his time at Mr. Hironaka’s office, preparing for his trial, according to people familiar with his movements.
In his off hours, he lived in a Tokyo rental with bare walls and little more than a stair-climbing machine for furniture. Neighbors often saw him shopping for groceries at the local import market or eating croissants at his favorite French cafe around the corner. His daughters visited frequently, and his excursions with them — which took him as far afield as Japan’s ancient capital, Kyoto — became fodder for Japanese reporters.
But the former chief executive, who had once traveled the globe as easily as most people go to the corner market, chafed at the unaccustomed restrictions on his movements, according to people familiar with his thinking.
As conditions on his bail, cameras above his door surveilled his comings and goings. His phone use was restricted, and he was not allowed to use the internet outside his lawyer’s office. And most egregiously, for him, in recent months the court allowed him only two brief phone calls with his wife, while lawyers listened in.
Throughout it all, he remained determined to defend his innocence in court. But his attitude took a dramatic shift on Christmas Day, according to a person familiar with his thinking. A Japanese court had just denied a request by his defense team to spend the holiday with his wife.
Instead, he found himself in a Tokyo courtroom, where his lawyers argued with prosecutors over the details of his upcoming trial.
During the session, Mr. Ghosn learned that the case could be tried in stages, potentially making it drag on for years. This led Mr. Ghosn to assume that the Japanese intended to force him to confess or to hold him indefinitely, the person said.
“When you look at the situation Mr. Ghosn was put in, it seems likely that his decision was driven by a feeling of despair,” said Nobuo Gohara, a former prosecutor who now works as a defense lawyer.
Now back in Lebanon, Mr. Ghosn may be hoping to get his Hollywood ending.
Preparations are being made for a news conference in Beirut next week. Mr. Ghosn and his attorneys are expected to raise the idea of facing a trial in Lebanon instead of Japan, according to multiple people familiar with the discussions.
Lebanon, at least, may be receptive: Salim Jreissati, a top government official, told a local paper this week that he had asked Japanese officials for Mr. Ghosn to be handed over to a Lebanese court to be tried under international anticorruption laws.
Reporting was contributed by Makiko Inoue and Eimi Yamamitsu from Tokyo; Emily Flitter from New York; Ben Hubbard from Beirut, Lebanon; and Elian Peltier from London.
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