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Carlos Ghosn claims put a spotlight on Japan's legal system

Japan has defended the legal proceedings against Carlos Ghosn, the ex-Nissan chief who recently fled to Lebanon. However, some Japanese experts have criticized the prosecutors' methods. Martin Fritz reports from Tokyo.

Carlos Ghosn appeared before a group of selected reporters in Beirut earlier this week. His two-hour fiery speech and his quick answers in English, French, Arabic and Portuguese showed that he was back in his element. Eloquent, sovereign, self-confident and convincing, the 65-year-old affirmed his innocence on all counts and pilloried the Japanese justice system.

"For the first time since this nightmare began, I can defend myself, speak freely," Ghosn said with relief.

Shortly before New Year's Day, the former auto executive fled Japan for Lebanon. He was apparently hidden in a crate for audio equipment which was carried by two Americans on a private plane at Kansai Airport in Osaka that then flew to Turkey. From there, Ghosn flew to Lebanon, the home of his parents.

Read moreEx-Nissan boss Carlos Ghosn escaped Japan aboard charter flights

"The nightmare started when I saw the face of the prosecutor, and it ended when I saw the face of my wife," he said.

Libanon Carole Ghosn, Frau des ehem. Nissan-Vorsitzender Carlos Ghosn in Beirut (Imago Images/Kyodo News)

Ghosn's wife Carole is also facing charges in Japan

Ghosn was charged with under-reporting about $80 million (€72 million) in compensation from Nissan and misusing company funds for his own benefit. He was under house arrest at the time of his escape and was not allowed to have contact with his wife.

'I felt like a hostage'

The world's most famous refugee accused the Japanese justice system of not seeking the truth but of blackmailing a confession.

"'If you don't just confess, it will get worse,' the prosecutor kept telling me," Ghosn alleged. He went on to recall long periods of solitary confinement, interrogations of up to eight hours a day without a lawyer, the spreading of false allegations through the press and the deliberate concealment of exculpatory information. He claimed that the prosecution had screened all his bank accounts and found no illegal payments.

"I felt like a hostage in a country I had served for 17 years," Ghosn said.

His escape was the hardest decision of his life, he said, but he would not have had a fair trial and would not have been able to see his wife again. His lawyers had told him that the trials could last five years.

"You're going to die in Japan or you have to get out," he said he told himself.

Official denial from Japan

The Japanese Minister of Justice rejected the accusations immediately after the press conference. She said the justice system's approach was appropriate.

Libanon Ehem. Nissan-Vorsitzender Carlos Ghosn in Beirut (AFP/J. Eid)

Ghosn's press conference in Lebanon lasted two-and-a-half hours

"He has fled from a criminal trial, which would not be approved in any system," Masako Mori stated on Thursday. "He tries to justify his escape with false facts about Japan's legal system. We cannot accept this under any circumstances."

Mori followed up, saying that Ghosn's accusations were abstract, not supported by real evidence and could create a false impression of the Japanese legal system.

Read moreCarlos Ghosn's escape from Japan raises more questions than answers

The responsible public prosecutor's office also defended itself against Ghosn's allegations in a rare English-language statement. The bail requirements had resulted from the "high risk of flight," wrote the Tokyo prosecutors office. They claimed that Ghosn's wife Carole had been involved in moving Nissan funds and that Ghosn used her to contact other parties involved in order to falsify evidence. This was the reason for banning any contact between the couple, the prosecution explained.

Forced confessions

But the official denials ignored the fact that lawyers, retired judges and former prosecutors in Japan have long been calling for a reform of criminal proceedings. The focus has been on the standard of pre-trial detentions that can last for 23 days. This can include solitary confinement for the defendant and no right to contact a lawyer. Many consider this problematic because it can be misused to force confessions. For this reason, critics accuse the system of "hostage justice." One of Ghosn lawyers, Takashi Takano, wrote in a blog post that he is exasperated by this "almost murderous" system. He told his client that he should not expect a fair trial in Japan.

Tokyo Zeichnung Carlos Ghosn bei Anhörung vor Gericht (picture-alliance/Kyodo/N. Katsuyama)

Ghosn at a court appearance in January 2019

In fact, may experts argue that Japanese criminal prosecutors have so much power that suspects and their lawyers can hardly stand up to them.

"The system allows prosecutors to severely punish suspects de facto before they are even prosecuted, let alone convicted," said Colin P. A. Jones, a professor at Doshisha Law School in Kyoto. This de facto punishment is harsher and longer for those who profess their innocence. Jones attributes the delay in the start of one of Ghosn's trials to 2021 in part to the fact that Ghosn did not confirm the accusations against him with a confession.

'No collusion with Nissan'

During his appearance in Beirut, Ghosn also repeated his earlier claim that there had been a "palace coup" by Nissan managers against him. They had allied themselves with the prosecutors in order to prevent a merger of Nissan with Renault.

"My unimaginable ordeal is the result of a handful of unscrupulous, vindictive individuals," he said, naming his now deposed successor Hiroto Saikawa, managers Hari Nada and Hitoshi Kawaguchi, Nissan board of director member and ex-minister of economics Masakazu Toyoda, ex-auditor Hidetoshi Imazu and ex-secretary Toshiaki Onuma.

Carlos Ghosn (picture-alliance/AP Images/T. Suzuki)

Ghosn stepped down as the head of Nissan in 2017

Contrary to what had been announced previously, however, Ghosn refrained from calling out political leaders in Japan by name "out of consideration for the hospitality of the Lebanese government."

Read moreDetained ex-Nissan boss Carlos Ghosn faces fresh charge

Takahiro Saito, deputy head of the Tokyo district attorney's office, rejected the claim that Nissan and the prosecutors had conspired against Ghosn as "categorically false and completely against the facts." The accused ex-executive Toyoda also denied the accusation.

"I will say nothing regarding this play that he himself staged," said ex-Nissan CEO Saikawa. "On what basis is he talking about a coup?" Saikawa added that Ghosn had fled because he would probably be found guilty in a criminal trial.

Now Ghosn apparently wants to clear himself of the accusations in Japan through an independent judicial process in his home country of Lebanon. One reporter in Beirut suggested that such a trial would not be very credible because of the corrupt judiciary in Lebanon. The ex-auto executive said that if someone mentioned a corrupt judicial system, he would think first of a country other than Lebanon. Everyone knew what he meant by that.

Watch video 01:54

Ghosn: treatment in Japan a 'travesty'

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