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Year of living defiantly: Ghosn keeps busy schedule on the run

Ex-Nissan chief to teach a college course and help film a documentary

Former Nissan Motor chief Carlos Ghosn joins in a selfie after announcing an entrepreneurship program at a Lebanese university.   © Reuters

TOKYO -- In the year since his daring escape to Lebanon from house arrest in Japan, former Nissan Motor head Carlos Ghosn has maintained a busy schedule of personal pursuits even as French and Japanese authorities close in on him.

In September, Ghosn announced a new program to coach businesspeople and entrepreneurs at the Holy Spirit University of Kaslik north of Beirut. Students will pay $15,000 to $20,000 to participate in the six-day course to be held next spring.

"[It's] a top executive management program that we want to be the best not only in Lebanon but in the region," Ghosn said of the upcoming program in front of an audience at the university. He eloquently discussed efforts to nurture tech talent and startups in English and French. "We're not only good traders, we are also good entrepreneurs," he said of his fellow Lebanese.

Lebanon has been Ghosn's home since he fled Japan on Dec. 29 of last year. As Ghosn had hoped, Beirut has resisted efforts by Tokyo to have him extradited to face trial on charges of financial misconduct. The Brazilian-born businessman spent much of his childhood in Lebanon and reportedly has deep ties to its government.

While the automaker he once brought back from the brink of bankruptcy struggles to move forward, Ghosn appears to have occupied himself with projects that help burnish his image. A French production company and a Middle Eastern media group announced in October plans for a documentary and miniseries about Ghosn with his cooperation and that of his wife. Filming has already begun in Beirut.

Former Nissan chairman Carlos Ghosn and his wife Carole Ghosn pose for a picture in Beirut in January. The couple are cooperating in a documentary about his escape.   © Reuters

Ghosn also set up his own official website in November, posting updates on his activities along with criticism of Japan's "hostage justice" system. In a September post, he predicted that "a long fight is to come" in the ongoing trial in Japan of former Nissan executive Greg Kelly, who stands accused of conspiring to underreport Ghosn's compensation.

Ghosn's comfort in making public appearances looks to be linked to the fact that two figures who allegedly helped his escape from Japan have yet to be handed over to Japan. 

The U.S. State Department and a federal court had agreed to extradite U.S. Army Special Forces veteran Michael Taylor and his son to Japan, increasing the likelihood of a trial there. But the move was halted in late October following a challenge by their lawyers.

Yet pressure on Ghosn himself is ramping up. On top of the case against him in Japan, where prosecutors put out an international request for his arrest via Interpol last January, French authorities have been investigating alleged misuse of company assets during his time at the helm of Nissan partner Renault.

Ghosn now also faces accusations that he evaded taxes by falsely reporting his residence. French media reported this month that tax authorities have been given the go-ahead to seize $13 million in assets owned by Ghosn and his wife. French investigators are reportedly set to travel to Lebanon to question him in January.

Changing conditions in Lebanon may affect Ghosn's future as well.

The country defaulted on a debt payment for the first time in March, and downtown Beirut is still recovering from the immense damage caused by the explosion that rocked the capital in August. The government resigned en masse after the blast -- which was  seen as the culmination of years of political corruption and dysfunction -- and a new one has yet to form. A capital crunch has spurred banks to impose strict limits on cash withdrawals.

With public frustration coming to a head, economist Dan Azzi, a former CEO at Standard Chartered's Lebanese arm, argues that the only option is a "haircut" -- a reduction in value -- for assets owned by the privileged wealthy, a category that includes Ghosn.

Though pursuing criminal charges against the former Nissan chief now looks difficult as long as he stays in Lebanon, that could change as the state of the country deteriorates. "There's room for the government's thinking to change in response to the domestic situation," said a senior Japanese legal official, adding that Beirut will be keeping an eye on moves by foreign authorities as well.

"We hope that will lead to an extradition," the official said.

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