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One year on: Japan debates fallout from Carlos Ghosn escape

Japan's Justice Ministry is considering electronic tagging to ensure fugitives do not escape justice

Carlos Ghosn was living in a monitored apartment awaiting trial when he boarded a train from Tokyo to Osaka in December 2019 with two accomplices. AFP Photo
Carlos Ghosn was living in a monitored apartment awaiting trial when he boarded a train from Tokyo to Osaka in December 2019 with two accomplices. AFP Photo

A year after Japan learnt with horror that Carlos Ghosn had jumped bail to become the world's most famous fugitive, the fiasco and its repercussions continue to haunt the country.

Mr Ghosn was living in a monitored apartment in Tokyo awaiting trial on financial misconduct charges when he casually boarded a train to Osaka in western Japan on December 29, 2019, with two accomplices.

Do not expect a happy ending

Stephen Givens

They smuggled him past customs at Kansai airport, reportedly in an instrument case, and a day later he emerged in Beirut, after changing planes in Istanbul.

The former Nissan chief, who holds French, Lebanese and Brazilian nationality, declared in an astonishing press conference from Beirut that he had been forced to flee for fear of an unfair trial.

Stunned Japanese officials took days to respond officially to his escape, and their extradition demands were rejected by Lebanon as the countries have no applicable treaty.

Facing an Interpol arrest warrant, Mr Ghosn has remained effectively trapped in Lebanon, even as others face court over their links to his case.

In mid-September, the trial began against his former Nissan colleague Greg Kelly, who was also out on bail in Tokyo when Mr Ghosn escaped.

Mr Kelly is accused of having illegally and deliberately concealed payments of around ¥9.2 billion ($89 million at today's rates) that were promised by Nissan to Ghosn upon retirement.

Mr Kelly, who like Mr Ghosn denies any wrongdoing, faces 10 years in prison if found guilty, and some have claimed the escape will make prosecutors more determined to win a conviction.

"Dismissal of the charges would be a devastating loss of face that would allow Ghosn to crow from his hideout in Beirut," wrote Stephen Givens, a Tokyo-based corporate lawyer, in the Nikkei Asian Review in October.

"Ghosn's escape has sent the prosecutors up a tree from which they can no longer climb down. Do not expect a happy ending."

Others in the saga also face legal proceedings, including the alleged accomplices in Mr Ghosn's escape, former Green Beret Michael Taylor and his son Peter, who are fighting extradition from the US to Japan.

And in Istanbul, a court case is continuing against Turkish employees of a private jet company that was hired to assist in Mr Ghosn's escape.

'Years of his misconduct'

In Japan, the saga continues to cast a long shadow.

The justice ministry has launched a review of the country's bail system amid plans to strengthen it, including possibly introducing an electronic monitoring bracelet system.

Ironically, at one point while attempting to win bail, Mr Ghosn offered to wear a monitoring bracelet but was rebuffed as it was not yet part of Japan's bail system.

Former Nissan Motor Chairman Carlos Ghosn (L) arrives for a pre-trial hearing at the Tokyo District Court in Tokyo, prior to his escape from Japan. AFP Photo
Former Nissan Motor Chairman Carlos Ghosn (L) arrives for a pre-trial hearing at the Tokyo District Court in Tokyo, prior to his escape from Japan. AFP Photo

There is also debate about the country's judicial system, and the claim made by critics that Japan uses "hostage justice" – the lengthy detention of people before charges are filed, allegedly in a bid to secure a confession.

Prosecutors in Japan can hold a person for up to 23 days for each charge they are investigating, and may interrogate a detainee without a lawyer during this period.

That leaves them "extremely vulnerable", said Megumi Wada, a former member of Mr Ghosn's defence team in Japan and a researcher for the Japanese Federation of Bar Associations.

But wholesale reform looks unlikely, with the JFBA largely ignored by the government and carefully avoiding mention of the Ghosn case, instead calling on authorities to respect rights enshrined in Japan's constitution.

In November, Ghosn scored a victory when a UN working group on arbitrary detention concluded his arrest and detention in Japan had been "fundamentally unfair", a view that Tokyo criticised as "totally unacceptable".

Mr Ghosn is currently beyond the reach of the Japanese courts and leads a comparatively quiet life, mostly in his Beirut home. He recently released a book setting out his side of his case.

He and Nissan continue to pursue each other through various legal actions.

Proceedings in a $95 million lawsuit brought by the car maker against Mr Ghosn opened in Japan, with Nissan seeking compensation for what it called "years of his misconduct and fraudulent activity".

Mr Ghosn, who is also under investigation in France, is seeking €15 million ($18 million) from Nissan and Mitsubishi Motors for wrongful termination of his contract in a case in the Netherlands, and is fighting a similar battle against former employer Renault.

Updated: December 28, 2020 08:08 PM

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