Carlos Ghosn’s Escape: A Lawyer in Beirut, a French Passport and a Lot of Mystery

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TOKYO — 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?’” Mr. 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 Mr. 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 Mr. 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 Mr. 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 press conference, the person familiar with the matter said.

His lawyer, too, seemed dumbfounded by the Houdini-like disappearance. Addressing the reporters outside his Tokyo office, Mr. Hironaka said Mr. Ghosn’s departure was “totally unexpected.”

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

Mr. 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 the authorities and private investigators from Nissan followed him around the city, according to people familiar with the matter.

Mr. Ghosn spoke with his wife, Carole, for about an hour on Dec. 24, Mr. 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, Mr. Hironaka said, and they had spoken only twice since Mr. Ghosn was rearrested in April.

Nevertheless, Mr. 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.

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

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

All three of Mr. Ghosn’s passports were in his lawyers’ possession, Mr. 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,” Mr. Hironaka told reporters. “It would have been difficult for him to do this without the assistance of some large organization.”

Mr. 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,” Mr. Hironaka said on 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 ahead of New Year’s Day. NHK reported that border control officials in Japan and Lebanon had no record of Mr. 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 Mr. Ghosn had “entered the country legally using his French passport and Lebanese ID.”

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


Ben Dooley and Michael Corkery

2020-01-01 05:36:24

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