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Nissan's Ghosn crisis

Ghosn extradition proves to be sticky issue for Japan and Lebanon

A month after escape, Tokyo struggles to craft PR strategy

Former Nissan Motor Chairman Carlos Ghosn blasted Japan's justice system at a Jan. 8 news conference in Beirut.   © Reuters

TOKYO -- A month after former Nissan Motor Chairman Carlos Ghosn's shocking escape from house arrest in Japan, the Japanese government is still trying to negotiate his extradition from Lebanon, which has so far refused to hand over one of its most prominent citizens.

Ghosn, who was arrested in November 2018 on financial misconduct charges, has continued his broadsides against the Japanese judicial system since his Jan. 8 news conference in Beirut. He tweeted last week that the country "has to reform its hostage justice system."

The Ministry of Justice here has mounted a public relations counteroffensive, posting on its website an English-language FAQ page defending the nation's criminal justice system.

"Extradition negotiations require the utmost care," and the ministry "cannot let these one-sided claims stand," a senior official there said.

Countries seeking to have fugitives repatriated have basically three options. The most effective is through an extradition treaty. In Ghosn's case, however, Japan has such agreements with only the U.S. and South Korea.

Countries can also seek wanted notices from Interpol, but these are nonbinding requests that rely on voluntary compliance. Interpol issued this month a "red notice" for Ghosn with which Lebanon has not agreed to cooperate.

So diplomacy is Tokyo's only remaining option. Steps have been taken in this direction already, including a Jan. 7 meeting between Japanese Ambassador to Lebanon Takeshi Okubo and Lebanese President Michel Aoun.

Ghosn holds Lebanese citizenship, and many countries customarily do not extradite their own citizens, particularly in the absence of a treaty.

This is not the first clash between Tokyo and Beirut over extradition. Lebanon in 2000 granted political asylum to Kozo Okamoto, a Japanese national who had participated in a 1972 attack at an Israeli airport that killed more than 20, defying Tokyo's demands to hand him over.

In the Ghosn case, "it's important [for Tokyo] to give a detailed explanation that Lebanon can accept," said Masahiro Aichi, a Chukyo University professor who studies international criminal law.

Given how strongly Ghosn has asserted his innocence, Japan should stress the weight of the evidence against him and the importance of a proper trial in its courts, Aichi argued.

"There's room for Lebanon to positively consider the request from an international cooperation standpoint if the Japanese side's arguments are persuasive," he said.

This comes at a delicate time in Lebanese politics, with a new government having assumed power just last week after months of protests. The change has failed to quell the demonstrations.

"The new administration doesn't have a firm base of support," said Osamu Miyata, head of the Center for Contemporary Islamic Studies in Japan, adding that a groundswell of public opinion against Ghosn could make Beirut more receptive to the extradition request.

But Miyata contends that Tokyo is not helping its case by putting out most of its messaging in English, which has limited influence in the Middle East.

"A well-designed information strategy that uses communication in Arabic and social media is important," he said.

Japan is still investigating Ghosn's escape. Reports have emerged of three accused non-Japanese collaborators, and the former chairman hinted at "local complicity" in an interview with a French magazine. Investigators are looking into two men, believed to be Americans, suspected of loading a large case with Ghosn hiding inside onto a private jet and accompanying him to Lebanon.

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