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Nissan's Ghosn crisis

Did Ghosn's political ties in Lebanon open doors?

Middle Eastern country denies any role in his escape

Former Nissan Motor Chairman Carlos Ghosn and his residence in Beirut: Speculation is rife that Lebanese authorities may have had advance knowledge of his escape from Japan. (Nikkei Montage/Source photos by AP)

BEIRUT/TOKYO -- While the Beirut government rejects allegations that it had a hand in former Nissan Motor Chairman Carlos Ghosn's escape from house arrest in Tokyo, his deep ties to the political and business establishments in Lebanon have fueled speculation.

A source close to the ousted chairman says that soon after entering Lebanon, Ghosn held an unofficial meeting with President Michel Aoun. The president's office denies that such a meeting took place, but some individuals inside the government may have known of the escape plan in advance.

"Lebanon played no official role" in Ghosn's departure from Japan, caretaker Defense Minister Elias Bou Saab told Lebanese broadcaster MTV on Thursday.

But The Guardian reported Tuesday that Ghosn's flight to Lebanon was aided by Lebanese state officials who were instructed by political leaders to smooth his arrival.

Behind the speculation is Ghosn's strong ties to Lebanese society. In 2017, a stamp bearing his likeness was issued. Incumbent cabinet ministers and business leaders gathered at a reception to celebrate.

An undated photo obtained by a French news channel appears to show ousted Nissan Motor Chairman Carlos Ghosn dining in Beirut with his wife, Carole. (Screenshot of TF1/LCI webpage)

A local journalist explained that Ghosn is regarded as an "emperor of the business world" and that politicians form lines for an audience with him. There is speculation that Ghosn will seek political office in the country.

Ghosn has invested in multiple Lebanese companies and projects, including a winery he opened with a powerful family conglomerate. Some of the companies he has invested in count political leaders as major shareholders. A Lebanese university has a facility with his name on it.

How those ties factored in is shrouded in mystery.

Details of the escape itself are emerging. Turkish private-jet company MNG Jet acknowledged Friday that two aircraft it operated were used in Ghosn's flight from Japan's Kansai International Airport to Istanbul, Turkey, and then on to Beirut's Rafic Hariri International Airport. But the company said it was duped by one of its employees and was unaware that Ghosn was the passenger.

MNG said it filed a criminal complaint Wednesday. The employee admitted to an internal probe that he falsified flight records. He was detained by Turkish authorities Thursday and is being investigated.

According to the company, two private jets were leased to two separate clients in December. One traveled from Dubai to Kansai, and then on to Istanbul. The other jet flew from Istanbul to Beirut.

None of the flight documents contained Ghosn's name, and the company did not know that the two leases were connected, MNG said.

Turkish police officers escort suspects accused of involvement of Nissan's former CEO Carlos Ghosn passage through Istanbul on Jan. 3. Ghosn's daring escape spanned three continents and involved private planes, multiple passports and international intrigue.    © AP

Turkish newspaper Hurriyet has reported that a private jet from Kansai International Airport landed at Istanbul's Ataturk Airport early Monday morning and that about 30 minutes later another private jet left the same hangar and took off to Beirut.

Back in Japan, investigators have found that a surveillance camera monitoring Ghosn's Tokyo residence showed the former chairman exiting the premises by himself, never to return, a source close to the investigation told Nikkei.

Ghosn left his Minato Ward home around noon Sunday, according to footage analyzed by the police. This was the last time he appeared on video, the source said. The footage shows no other persons of interest entering or leaving the residence.

Tokyo prosecutors are investigating whether Ghosn rendezvoused with other actors in a separate location to make his way out of the country.

The Wall Street Journal reported Friday that a pair of men helped Ghosn board a private jet inside a large black case, typically used to carry audio gear, and accompanied the former chairman out of Japan.

Ghosn had been under house arrest awaiting trial on charges including financial misconduct. One of his bail conditions was that his residence be monitored by camera around the clock.

Nissan's onetime boss was also forbidden from traveling overseas or from contacting individuals involved in his case. Contact with his wife, Carole, had to be preapproved by the court.

Ghosn's mistrust of the Japanese justice system apparently spurred him to think of turning his story into a movie.

Ghosn hosted John Lesher, producer of the Oscar-winning movie "Birdman," at his Tokyo residence in December, The New York Times reported Thursday, quoting people familiar with the discussions. They talked about a possible film depicting the Japanese justice system as the villain, it said.

Although the discussions "were preliminary and did not get far," Ghosn "was preparing to deliver a shocking plot twist," the Times said.

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