2 Jan 2020

Carlos Ghosn: How did the Nissan ex-boss flee from Japan?

6:45 am on 2 January 2020

He was once a titan of the car industry who held hero status in Japan. He then became one of the country's most well-known criminal suspects. Now he's an international fugitive.

Carlos Ghosn leaves the attorney office in Chiyoda Ward, Tokyo on March 6, 2019.

Carlos Ghosn appeared in Lebanon on New Year's Eve Photo: AFP

Carlos Ghosn, the multi-millionaire former boss of Nissan, spent months preparing to stand trial on financial misconduct charges. At least, that was what the Japanese authorities were led to believe.

He posted 1 billion yen ($NZ13.6 million) in bail in April. He was monitored by a 24-hour camera installed outside his house. His use of technology was heavily restricted and he was banned from travelling abroad.

Junichiro Hironaka, a chief lawyer of Carlos Ghons, speaks to media in Tokyo on December 31, 2019.

Carlos Ghosn's lawyer Junichiro Hironaka. Photo: AFP

Then, in a move that left Japan red-faced and his own legal team baffled, he appeared in Lebanon on New Year's Eve. "I have escaped injustice and political persecution," he declared in a statement.

"We were completely caught by surprise. I am dumbfounded," his lawyer, Junichiro Hironaka, told a crowd of reporters in Tokyo shortly after learning of Ghosn's flight. "I want to ask him, 'How could you do this to us?'"

Another pressing question is: how did he do it at all?

A musical escape?

One Lebanese TV channel - MTV - reported that Ghosn had fled his court-approved residence in Tokyo with the assistance of a paramilitary group who were disguised amongst a band of musicians.

It said the band had performed at his house and, shortly after they had finished, the 65-year-old hid himself in a large musical instrument case which was then hurried to a local airport. If this really happened, it may have been a tight squeeze even for Ghosn, whose height is reported at 5ft 6in (167cm).

According to the MTV story, he then flew to Turkey, before arriving in Lebanon on a private jet. The broadcaster provided no proof for this theory which, unsurprisingly, spread rapidly across social media.

But donning a spy-movie disguise is not beyond Ghosn. In March, in a bid to throw journalists off his scent, he left prison disguised as a construction worker. He was quickly identified, mocked in the media, and his lawyer soon apologised for the "amateur plan".

Two sources close to Ghosn say he was smuggled out of house arrest by a private security company, Reuters reports.

One of the sources said Ghosn was greeted warmly by President Michel Aoun on Monday and was now in a buoyant and combative mood and felt secure.

In his meeting, Ghosn thanked Aoun for the support he had given him and his wife while he was in detention, the sources said. He now needed the protection and security of his government after fleeing Japan, they added.

A media adviser to the president's office denied the two men had met.

The role of Carole Ghosn

The former chief executive's getaway from Tokyo to Beirut was meticulously planned over a period of several weeks, according to the Wall Street Journal.

The newspaper, which cited a number of unidentified sources, said a team was carefully assembled to carry out the plot. The group reportedly included accomplices in Japan who transported Ghosn from his house and onto a private jet bound for Istanbul. From there, he continued his journey to Beirut where he arrived in the early hours of 30 December.

The plane tracking site FlightRadar24 showed a a Bombardier Challenger private jet arriving at Beirut-Rafic Hariri international airport shortly after 4am local time. Ghosn then met his wife Carole, who was born in the city and was heavily involved in the operation, the Wall Street Journal says.

Several reports have said Carole Ghosn was a major figure behind the plan for her husband to skip bail and get out of Japan. She spoke with him for more than an hour on 24 December, Ghosn's Japanese lawyer said. The couple had previously been banned from meeting or communicating under Ghosn's strict bail conditions.

After her husband arrived in Lebanon, Carole Ghosn told the Wall Street Journal that their reunion was "the best gift of my life". She has not commented on her alleged involvement in the operation.

Earlier this year she told the BBC: "I want my husband back. I want him with me. I know he is innocent."

Ghosn grew up in Lebanon, owns property there and is a popular figure. He even appeared on one of the country's postage stamps.

He has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing.

Three passports

Questions remain about the documents Ghosn used to enter Lebanon. He holds three passports - Brazilian, French and Lebanese - but his legal team maintain that they were in possession of all of them when he left Japan.

It is not known whether Ghosn was holding duplicate passports - as businesspeople are sometimes allowed to do. It has also been reported that he may have had a diplomatic passport issued by Lebanon although this has not been confirmed.

While the French newspaper Le Monde said he travelled on an ID card, others have reported that he may have used a French passport or even a false identity with forged documents. Lebanon's foreign ministry has not said what passport Ghosn travelled on but it has insisted that he entered the country legally.

The embarrassment caused by Ghosn's flight soon sparked a reaction from Japan. One Japanese politician asked whether he "had the support of some country". A former governor of Tokyo was more forthright, accusing Lebanon of direct involvement.

"The government has nothing to do with [Ghosn's] decision to come," Lebanese minister Salim Jreissati was quoted as saying by the New York Times. "We don't know the circumstances of his arrival." France and Turkey have also said they were unaware of Ghosn's plan.

There is no extradition deal between Japan and Lebanon, which means the future of Ghosn's trial is now fraught with uncertainty.

Japan gives millions in aid to Lebanon and will likely want Ghosn returned. But it will no doubt have to answer further questions about how such a high-profile suspect was able to get out of the country in the first place.

- BBC / Reuters

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