Carlos Ghosn’s flight from criminal charges in Japan to Lebanon was aided by Lebanese state officials who were instructed by political leaders to smooth his arrival.
The former boss of Nissan and Renault landed at Beirut-Rafic Hariri international airport in Lebanon on Monday morning and said in a statement that he was escaping a “rigged” Japanese justice system. He reportedly hid in a musical instrument box to abscond from his house in Tokyo.
In his statement Ghosn said he would “no longer be held hostage by a rigged Japanese justice system where guilt is presumed”. Ghosn had surrendered his passports as part of his bail conditions and had been barred from leaving Japan.
“I have not fled justice, I have escaped injustice and political persecution,” Ghosn said, adding that he could now “finally communicate freely with the media and look forward to starting next week”.
Ghosn, 65, was ousted as chair of the Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi carmaking alliance after he was arrested in November 2018 on charges that he had underreported his income from Nissan by $80m (£60m). Ghosn has said the charges were part of a plot by Nissan executives to oust him.
He was awaiting a trial in Tokyo that was due to start in April. Ghosn attended a pre-trial hearing in Tokyo’s district court on Christmas Day.
He was given a low-key but warm welcome in Lebanon, where he is regarded by many as a national hero. Ghosn was born in Brazil but his parents were Lebanese and he spent some of his childhood in Beirut. Armed members of Lebanon’s internal security forces were present on Tuesday outside a Beirut mansion identified in court documents as belonging to Ghosn.
Lebanon’s former foreign minister Gebran Bassil has been a robust backer of the expatriate businessman. Ghosn also enjoys political cover and patronage from several other senior figures in the country’s ruling class, one of whom told the Guardian that he would not be extradited to Japan and said state officials had been instructed by political leaders to ignore arrival formalities for Ghosn at Beirut airport. Lebanon does not have an extradition treaty with Japan.
Ghosn’s re-entry to a country in which multinational business affairs are opaque and blended into national politics augurs poorly for Japanese prosecutors who remain determined to prosecute him. Cooperation from Lebanese authorities is far from guaranteed, however, and an often lax rule of law is likely to mean the trail of his financial dealings will go cold.
“He’s back now and he’ll be celebrated,” said one senior official. “There’s a lot of admiration for what he’s done in business.”
Ghosn on Tuesday sought to portray himself as a refugee from injustice and political persecution in Japan – which has been heavily criticised for an unusually high rate of convictions and a culture described as “hostage justice” by some experts – rather than as a fugitive from the law. Ghosn had been under strict bail conditions that included 24-hour surveillance and a bond payment of ¥1.5bn (£10.4m) that he will probably now lose.
The statement did not give details of his escape route or how he evaded Japanese authorities, and his representatives declined to comment further. The Lebanese TV news channel MTV reported that Ghosn hid in a musical instruments case before flying to Istanbul and then on to Beirut.
His lawyers were still in possession of three of his passports on Tuesday, one of his lawyers, Junichiro Hironaka, told reporters. However, Reuters reported that senior Lebanese foreign ministry sources said Ghosn had entered Lebanon legally on a French passport and used his Lebanese ID with normal security procedures.
The governments of Lebanon and France both said they had no prior knowledge of Ghosn’s departure from Japan.
Lebanon’s general security directorate said he entered Beirut in a legal manner and there were no reasons for action or legal proceedings against him, according to the Lebanese news agency NNA.
France’s foreign ministry said it was not aware that Ghosn had jumped bail until alerted by the media. Ghosn had received consular assistance from his arrest as well as regular contact by France’s ambassador to Japan, the ministry said in a statement.
The junior economy minister Agnès Pannier-Runacher said she had been “very surprised” by the news when she learned of it in the media.
Ghosn’s status as the architect of the partnership between Renault and Nissan meant he was formerly able to call on top political connections across the world. The former French president Nicolas Sarkozy visited Ghosn in Tokyo as recently as October, with the knowledge of the current president, Emmanuel Macron.
Ghosn’s flight could have implications for Greg Kelly, the former Nissan director who was accused of aiding and abetting his boss’s efforts to hide extra income. Kelly was due to join Ghosn on trial in Tokyo in April, but the Guardian understands Kelly’s legal team is considering options to have the case dismissed in light of Ghosn’s likely absence.
Kelly faces a single charge related to allegedly concealing Ghosn’s pay, meaning any trial would have to go ahead without one of the two key witnesses. Despite Ghosn’s flight, the intensity of supervision of Kelly is not thought to have increased.