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Nissan's Ghosn crisis

Ghosn claims injustice from Beirut, but Tokyo calls it unacceptable

Ex-Nissan chief accuses six former colleagues of conspiracy

Former Nissan Chairman Carlos Ghosn speaks during a news conference at the Lebanese Press Syndicate in Beirut on Jan. 8.   © AP

BEIRUT/TOKYO -- Fugitive ex-Renault-Nissan chief Carlos Ghosn on Wednesday night appeared before a select group of reporters in Beirut, dismissing charges of financial misconduct and reiterating that Nissan Motor executives and Tokyo prosecutors conspired to engineer his ouster.

Japanese government officials immediately rejected the former auto executive's claims.

"I was left with no other choice but to protect myself and my family. It was a difficult decision," said Ghosn, appearing for the first time since his escape from house arrest in Tokyo last month.

Wearing a dark suit with a white shirt and pinkish tie, Ghosn said he was told by his lawyers that he would be in Japan for perhaps five years before a court judgment was handed down.

"You are going to die in Japan, or you are going to have to get out," he said, describing the reason for leaving Japan. But he avoided disclosing details of the escape.

Ghosn criticized the Japanese criminal justice system, saying he was subject to up to eight hours of interrogation a day without a lawyer present.

"I felt like the hostage of a country I served for 17 years," he told media representatives, whom he reportedly picked himself. No major Japanese media organizations, including Nikkei, were invited to the event.

Japanese Justice Minister Masako Mori held a news conference early Thursday morning just after midnight in Tokyo, saying that the country's justice system operates under appropriate procedures.

"[Ghosn] has fled from a criminal trial. That is not acceptable under any country's system," she said. "He is trying to justify that act by propagating false facts about Japan's legal system. There is no way we can overlook this."

Mori held another news conference later in the morning and defended Japan's justice system.

Ghosn's allegations were "abstract and not backed by any real evidence," she said, adding that they could "give people around the world a false impression of Japan's justice system."

The 65-year-old with Lebanese, French and Brazilian citizenship had been barred from leaving Japan under the terms of his 1.5 billion yen ($13.8 million) bail agreement.

Ghosn reiterated his claim that he was a victim of a palace coup at the Japanese automaker as the company tried to avoid being put under the control of Renault, the French automaker with a 43% ownership of Nissan.

Ghosn accused six people of plotting to oust him: former Nissan CEO Hiroto Saikawa; Masakazu Toyoda, an independent director at Nissan and former senior official at Japan's Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry; Nissan's ex-auditor Hidetoshi Imazu; former Nissan executives Hitoshi Kawaguchi and Hari Nada; and Toshiaki Onuma, who led Nissan's secretarial section.

Former Nissan CEO Hiroto Saikawa was named by Carlos Ghosn as one of the players who ousted the former chairman. (Photo by Kei Higuchi) 

He refrained from accusing the Japanese government by naming its officials, saying "I am imposing on myself silence on this part of the presentation, because in no way I want to show anything or say anything that will hurt the interests of the Lebanese people or the Lebanese government."

Ghosn said the root of Renault-Nissan tensions, and ultimately the reason he was ousted, was a French government move five years ago to increase its voting rights at Renault.

"This left a big bitterness. Not only with the management of Nissan, but also the government of Japan," Ghosn said.

"There started to be some kind of defiance from our Japanese colleagues, not only about the alliance but also about me."

He also said the Renault-Nissan alliance missed an opportunity by failing to merge with Fiat Chrysler (FCA), which later chose to team with Peugeot maker PSA.

"We were preparing to add Fiat Chrysler to the group because I was negotiating with John Elkann," he said, referring to the FCA chairman.

Ghosn called it unbelievable that the alliance "missed the unmissable," by passing on Fiat Chrysler. "How can you miss that huge opportunity to become the dominant player in the industry?" he said, suggesting that the alliance is missing his business prowess.

Nissan executives, both past and current, offered harsh comments after Ghosn's news conference.

Former Nissan CEO Hiroto Saikawa questioned Ghosn's motivations, suggesting that he fled "because he was likely to be found guilty in a trial in Japan."

"It feels like we were betrayed by him again," Saikawa said, apparently suggesting he first felt betrayed when Nissan's internal investigation uncovered alleged financial misconduct by the former chief.

Speaking to reporters in Tokyo on Thursday, Saikawa said he struggled to understand Ghosn's accusations during the news conference that Nissan executives plotted his ouster. "On what basis is he talking about a coup?" Saikawa said.

Tension with Renault was "a matter of opinion," Saikawa said, adding that it was a "totally different issue" from the alleged crimes.

Toyoda, a former METI official and independent director at Nissan who Ghosn named as one of the plotters, shrugged off the accusation. "He fled the country illegally and is performing in a play he wrote himself. I'm not going to deal with that," he told reporters on Thursday.

The news conference was dismissed as "nothing but a farce" by another Nissan executive. "Nissan is preparing to sue him for damages. How can we do that if there is no evidence?" this person said.

But another Nissan leader said the company needed to turn to rebuilding its operations. "We should separate this incident and our day-to-day operations and focus on our work," the executive said.

Takahiro Saito, deputy chief of the Tokyo District Public Prosecutors Office, rejected the allegation that Nissan and prosecutors conspired against Ghosn as "categorically false and completely contrary to the fact."

His office is "determined to coordinate with relevant authorities and to take whatever measures we have in our power to bring defendant Ghosn to justice in Japan," the prosecutor said in a statement.

Ghosn announced his escape from Japan on Dec. 31, having fled the country, apparently without going through required immigration procedures. He then issued a statement criticizing the Japanese criminal justice system as "hostage" justice, saying he was the victim of "injustice and political persecution."

Japanese Justice Minister Masako Mori speaks to reporters in Tokyo after the Ghosn press conference. (Photo by Yuki Nakao)

Japan has been tapping diplomatic channels to secure Ghosn's extradition. After the former chairman's bail was canceled Dec. 31, the Justice Ministry immediately contacted Interpol to request the issuance of a "red notice" for Ghosn. Two days after the bail cancellation, the notice -- which informs foreign governments that an individual is wanted by a certain country -- was delivered to Lebanon.

The red notice, the most urgent of Interpol's nine levels of notices, requests that governments locate and arrest the wanted individual. It raises the chance of Ghosn being detained if he travels outside of Lebanon.

Tokyo was also in close contact with Turkey, where Ghosn switched planes before flying to Lebanon. Turkish authorities on Jan. 2 detained seven individuals suspected of involvement in the escape, including pilots at a private jet company.

Japanese government sources say that the swift actions by Interpol and Turkey were the result of the discussions with Tokyo.

An arrest warrant was also issued by Japanese prosecutors Tuesday for Carole Ghosn, the wife of the former auto executive, on suspicion of perjury. The authorities claim Ghosn's 53-year-old wife gave false testimony last April.

Amid media reports of her possible involvement in Ghosn's escape, the arrest warrant is seen as a signal from investigators that they will not relent in their pursuit of the pair.

Ghosn was arrested by Japanese police on Nov. 19, 2018. Nissan said an internal investigation found that Ghosn had engaged in personal use of company money and had underreported his income in violation of Japanese law.

Additional reporting by Hiroyuki Koizumi and Wataru Suzuki in Tokyo.

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