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Questions surround former Nissan chief Carlos Ghosn’s brazen escape from Japan

The former Nissan chair is pictured with his wife Carole Ghosn outside his Tokyo residence on March 8, 2019.
The former Nissan chair is pictured with his wife Carole Ghosn outside his Tokyo residence on March 8, 2019. Issei Kato, REUTERS

Days after Carlos Ghosn’s dramatic flight from Japan to Lebanon, investigators are scrambling to retrace the steps of the disgraced car industry titan, whose lawyer once argued he was “too famous” to have any chance of escaping undetected.

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Japanese media said investigators raided the former Nissan chief’s Tokyo residence on Thursday, searching for clues to the circumstances of a daring escape that has shocked Japan and prompted Interpol to send out an arrest warrant for the former Nissan chief.

One of the world’s most prominent businessmen, Ghosn became Japan's most famous fugitive on this week as he revealed he had jumped bail and fled to Lebanon to escape what he called a "rigged" justice system.

The disgraced executive, who faces multiple charges of financial misconduct that he denies, had won bail in April albeit with strict conditions – including a ban on overseas travel and severely restricted use of the Internet and other communications.

But he managed to slip out of Japan on Sunday despite having surrendered his French, Lebanese and Brazilian passports to his lawyers – who swear they are still in possession of the travel documents.

How exactly Ghosn fled surveillance and popped up in Lebanon, and who helped him along the way, remains unclear, with the fugitive promising to give his version of events in a press conference in Beirut next week.

‘Months of planning’

According to the Wall Street Journal, Ghosn’s escape followed months of planning by associates and involved the help of several accomplices based in Japan.

The former executive is believed to have left Japan on board a private jet that left Kansai international airport, a six-hour drive from Tokyo, at 11:10pm on Sunday and landed at Istanbul’s Ataturk airport the next morning.

The WSJ said a smaller jet operated by Turkish company Jet Havacilik took off from the same airport 30 minutes later bound for Lebanon.

According to Swedish website Flightradar24, which monitors international flights, a private jet – believed to be the one carrying Ghosn – landed at Beirut’s Rafic Hariri Airport on December 30 shortly after 4am local time.

Ghosn went public about his dramatic flight the next day, stating that he would “no longer be held hostage by a rigged Japanese justice system where guilt is presumed”.

Hidden in a box?

Japan’s government has yet to comment publicly on Ghosn’s flight, with government offices shut all week for the New Year holiday.

Meanwhile, colourful rumours have emerged regarding the exact circumstances of his escape from his Tokyo home, where he was under 24-hour camera surveillance.

According to the most widely circulated theory, first mooted by Lebanese television channel MTV, the former Nissan boss was whisked out of his Tokyo residence inside a wooden case for a musical instrument – a Hollywood movie-style operation that reportedly involved the assistance of former special forces officers posing as musicians.

While Ghosn’s wife has dismissed this version of events as “fiction”, Japan’s NHK news channel suggested it would have been possible for Ghosn to skip passport controls at Kansai airport by hiding in luggage.

Private jet passengers are not exempt from passport controls, but their luggage is only scanned on a case-by-case basis, the Japanese broadcaster noted, citing aviation sources.  

Spare passport

While there is no emigration data showing Ghosn's departure from Japan, NHK reported on Thursday that Japanese authorities had allowed him to carry a spare French passport in a locked case while out on bail.

That could explain how Ghosn was able to enter Lebanon “legally”, as officials in Beirut have said, using a French passport.

However, the spare passport appears not to have been used during Ghosn’s brief transit on Turkish soil, with Turkish daily Hurriyet reporting that Ghosn was smuggled on board the second plane without being registered.

Turkey’s state-run Anadolu Agency said Thursday that Turkish authorities had detained seven people as part of an investigation into Ghosn’s transit through Istanbul.

The private DHA news agency said those detained included four pilots, a cargo company manager and two airport workers.

Interpol steps in

In Lebanon, the foreign ministry has denied claims that Lebanese officials played a part in the tycoon’s escape to Beirut, where Ghosn, whose parents were Lebanese, enjoys political cover and the patronage of elites.  

Earlier this week, the Guardian quoted a senior Lebanese politician as saying that state officials had been instructed to ignore arrival formalities for Ghosn at Beirut’s international airport.

Justice Minister Albert Serhan confirmed on Thursday that Lebanon had received an international wanted notice from Interpol for the former Nissan chair, adding that the country’s prosecution would “carry out its duties”.

But he pointed out that Lebanon and Japan do not have an extradition treaty, ruling out the possibility that Beirut would hand Ghosn over to Japan.

Earlier in the day, a junior minister in the French government also ruled out extraditing Ghosn, who led Nissan’s French partner Renault prior to his arrest, adding that France never extradites its nationals.

Bridges burnt

Investigators must now wait until next week for what could be the definitive account of Ghosn’s escape, with his entourage saying he will give a press conference on Wednesday.

But one thing is certain: By jumping bail, Ghosn, who had long insisted on his innocence, will not be able to return to Japan – the country where he first built his reputation as Nissan’s saviour – without going to jail.

“So he now has burnt his bridges to Japan,” Stephen Givens, a lawyer and expert on Japan's legal and corporate systems, told the Associated Press. “This is going to end in basically a stalemate with him spending the rest of his life in Lebanon."

Nor can Ghosn’s trial proceed without him, said FRANCE 24’s correspondent in Tokyo, Constantin Simon, noting that Japan’s legal system rules out trials in absentia.

“And given that there is no extradition treaty between the two countries, this means there will be no Carlos Ghosn trial here in Japan,” Simon added.
 

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