In Depth

Why did Carlos Ghosn flee Japan?

The businessman shocked the world by escaping, but says he stood no chance of a fair trial in Japan, where 99% of defendants are convicted

Carlos Ghosn, the former Nissan CEO who was awaiting trial in Japan for financial misconduct, has become an international fugitive after a daring escape to Lebanon under the noses of Japanese authorities.

Ghosn, a Brazilian-born French and Lebanese businessman, is largely credited with saving Nissan from bankruptcy and turning it into a thriving modern car maker since joining in 1999 from Renault.

His success earned him huge respect and status in Japan, despite being the company’s first ever non-Japanese CEO. However, he was arrested in November 2018, accused of underreporting his salary over five years by £63.6 million. Ghosn denies all wrongdoing.

Since his arrest, Ghosn has developed into one of Japan’s most well-known criminal suspects, and posted bail in April to live in his luxurious Tokyo residence under surveillance, where he was banned from using the internet, making legal preparations to face trial.

It now seems those preparations were a sham.

As news of his arrival in Lebanon emerged, Ghosn released a statement saying that he had “escaped injustice and political persecution,” and that he would no longer be “held hostage by a rigged Japanese justice system where guilt is presumed, discrimination is rampant, and basic human rights are denied.”

Ghosn had been required to hand over all three of his passports as a condition of bail, but at some point just before New Year’s Day - Japan’s most important holiday where government agencies are relatively understaffed - he evaded the camera installed outside his house and then, somehow, Japanese border police.

The Telegraph describes a “Houdini-like escape [that] had him sneaking out of his home in Tokyo - which had been under 24-hour police surveillance - with a group of ex-special forces soldiers posing as a musical band.”

“The escape appeared to have been planned in Lebanon,” reports The New York Times, citing a source saying that “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.”

The news has prompted fury, indignation, and a sense of wounded pride in Japan. “Running away is a cowardly act that mocks Japan’s justice system,” said Japanese newspaper Yomiuri Shimbun. Ghosn has “lost the opportunity to prove his innocence and vindicate his honour,” the paper added

“I want to ask him, ‘How could you do this to us?’” said Junichiro Hironaka, Ghosn’s lawyer in Tokyo, to a throng of reporters outside his office on Tuesday. “We were completely caught by surprise. I am dumbfounded.”

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There is great sympathy for Ghosn in his native Lebanon, and it remains to be seen what level of diplomatic fallout there will be with Japan.

Ghosn’s case has shone a light on what critics call Japan’s rigged justice system, in which more than 99% of defendants are convicted.

What’s more, “Foreign business executives in Japan have long felt Ghosn was treated harshly as a foreigner,” reports The Washington Post, “while Japanese business executives routinely escape prosecution for worse offences.”

“The Ghosn saga has been a fiasco from its dubious start,” concludes The Wall Street Journal. “The best way justice could be served now would be for the truth about the accusations to emerge; for Mr. Ghosn to get his reputation back if the evidence is as weak as it seems; and for Japan to reform its justice system and corporate governance so they are more appropriate for a modern free-market economy.”

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