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Nissan's Ghosn crisis

Ghosn said to flee Japan hidden in musical instrument case

Surprise escape to Lebanon without extradition treaty risks stalling Tokyo trial

Former Nissan Motor chief Carlos Ghosn was disguised as a construction worker for his initial release on bail in March in an attempt to avoid attention. (Photo by Shinya Sawai)

TOKYO --When Carlos Ghosn escaped house arrest here and surfaced in Beirut on Sunday, the former Nissan Motor chief left few clues as to how he not only eluded round-the-clock monitoring, but also fled the country with all three of his passports still in his lawyers' hands.

An elaborate operation involving a musical instrument case and a private security company apparently did the trick, Lebanese news channel MTV reports. A French news source identified Ghosn's wife as the mastermind behind the escape.

A band went to dinner at the residence where Ghosn was confined since April as a condition of his release on bail. When the performers left, they brought Ghosn along -- concealed in a storage container for instruments -- and he flew out through Kansai Airport, MTV said, without citing sources.

Ghosn traveled to Lebanon via Turkey on a private jet and entered the country with a French passport. Japanese flight records show a private aircraft departing the Osaka-area Kansai Airport for Turkey on Sunday night.

Private jet passengers must follow the same exit procedures as those on commercial flights. Yet a senior official in the Justice Ministry, which oversees immigration, said the ministry could not confirm Ghosn's method of departure in its databases.

The ex-chairman was arrested in November 2018 on charges of financial misconduct at Nissan and was awaiting trial. The case sparked international criticism of Japan's justice system and became a cause celebre in Lebanon, where Ghosn is seen as a national hero. With no extradition treaty between Tokyo and Beirut, his escape could bring the case to a screeching halt.

Ghosn met with Lebanese President Michel Aoun after his arrival and now enjoys "remarkable" government protection, according to MTV.

Lebanon's General Security Directorate said that Ghosn entered the country legally and will face no consequences, according to state news agency NNA.

Ghosn's Brazilian, French and Lebanese passports were held by his lawyers as a condition of bail. Junichiro Hironaka, the lawyer leading Ghosn's defense, looked concerned by his client's escape and said the news came "out of the blue." He denied any involvement.

"It would be difficult [for Ghosn to leave Japan illegally] unless a rather large organization was involved," Hironaka said.

French newspaper Le Monde reported Tuesday that the escape was planned by Ghosn's wife, Carole, who was on his plane when it arrived in Beirut.

Nissan's former leader has deep roots in Lebanon. Born to a Lebanese immigrant family in western Brazil, he lived in Lebanon from early childhood through high school and holds citizenship there. He is considered a model of Lebanese success abroad and is said to be deeply trusted by Beirut.

Gebran Bassil, Lebanon's minister of foreign affairs and emigrants, expressed concern after Ghosn's arrest in 2018 about the executive's prolonged custody at a Tokyo detention center. While in detention, Ghosn met frequently with Lebanese embassy officials, who proclaimed his innocence to the media.

"A Lebanese phoenix will not be scorched by the Japanese sun," Interior Minister Nohad Machnouk declared in 2018.

The Tokyo District Court reportedly has revoked Ghosn's bail -- seizing the 1.5 billion yen ($13.8 million) paid by the ex-chairman -- and Japan's Foreign Ministry is expected to ask Lebanon to hand him over.

But Japan lacks an extradition treaty with Lebanon, meaning that any such transfer would need to be negotiated -- something that has not always worked out for Tokyo in the past.

Japan has long pressed Lebanon to extradite a perpetrator of a 1972 attack at what is now Ben Gurion International Airport that left 26 people dead. Beirut has refused to hand him over, and he was granted political asylum there in 2000.

"The odds of [Lebanon] agreeing to [Ghosn's] extradition are low," a Japanese government source acknowledged.

Failure to bring Ghosn back to Japan would stall the proceedings. Under Japan's criminal code, a trial cannot be held if the accused fails to appear in court, except for certain petty crimes. Pretrial proceedings for Ghosn's case began in May.

"He probably concluded that he had little chance of winning and decided to leave the country," a source with the prosecution said.

The ex-Nissan chairman issued a statement Tuesday criticizing Japan's judicial system and said he will communicate with the media starting next week, suggesting that he may hold a news conference soon.

"I have not fled justice -- I have freed myself from injustice and political persecution," he said.

Former Nissan director Greg Kelly, who was arrested alongside Ghosn and released on bail in December 2018, is expected to appear in court. He expressed surprise at the news of the escape by his former boss.

Ghosn "really went and did something crazy," a lawyer for Kelly said.

Leaving the country legitimately "would probably be impossible," the lawyer said. "We have no choice but to go along with things quietly.

"But even so ..." the lawyer sighed.

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