National / Crime & Legal

Famed French lawyer signals shift in Ghosn's defense strategy

by Satoshi Sugiyama

Staff Writer

The defense team for former Nissan Motor Co. Chairman Carlos Ghosn appears to be taking a wider view of the fallen auto titan’s court case and is calling in the artillery to pursue judicial reform in regard to his human rights.

In an exclusive interview with The Japan Times, former French ambassador and renowned human rights lawyer Francois Zimeray said he joined the legal team to ensure Ghosn receives a fair trial and views Ghosn’s treatment under Japan’s criminal defense system as problematic.

Zimeray objects to prosecutors’ treatment of Ghosn as a suspect, accusing the legal system of failing to protect his client’s basic human rights. Specifically, he argued the absence of lawyers during interrogation, the lack of presumption of innocence, and a prolonged detention that stretched to more than 100 days violated the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Japan is a party.

“This is, I think, absolutely shameful,” Zimeray said.

Shoko Yamaguchi, a Japanese freelance journalist based in Paris, said in an email that Zimeray’s participation serves as an interesting case of how cultural differences are impacting approaches to the trial.

France upholds “liberty, equality, fraternity” as its national motto. How those values, reflected in the French judiciary, will be employed by the defense team in Japanese court should be noted, she said.

“Ghosn’s surprising choice of appointing a human rights lawyer shows his strategy of focusing on human rights issues rather than charges like embezzlement,” Yamaguchi said. In doing so, the defense team is expected to raise his protracted detention and separation from his spouse as a way to underscore his physical and emotional pain.

An attorney and a former member of the European Parliament, Zimeray is an authority on human rights. He served as French ambassador in charge of human rights from 2008 to 2013 and as an attorney at the Paris Court of Appeal. Despite his strong rhetoric, Yamaguchi said Zimeray is a respected figure in France.

The lawyer was visiting Tokyo recently to attend a legal conference and consult with Ghosn, who holds French, Lebanese and Brazilian citizenship, and the legal team.

The former executive of Nissan, Mitsubishi Motors Corp. and Renault SA was indicted and booted from all three automakers after being accused of financial wrongdoing last year.

The Tokyo District Court is scheduling to convene the first trial on April 21 and hold several dozens of hearings at a pace of up to three sessions per week, Kyodo News reported last month.

Ghosn denies any wrongdoing.

Zimeray said he was hopeful the case would spark judicial reforms in Japan, stressing that his mission is neither to lecture Japanese society nor to censure Japan itself. Rather, he said, it is to improve the system — like France has.

The struggle for fair trials is universal, he said.

“I know there are a lot of Japanese who think the same, I want to encourage them. It’s not a combat against Japan,” he said. “It’s a struggle inside all societies.”

In the Japanese criminal justice system, prosecutors can hold a suspect for up to 22 days from arrest to decide whether to indict the person. After indictment, if the court considers the suspect a flight risk or someone willing to destroy evidence, prosecutors can detain the suspect for two more months.

At a news conference last month, Tokyo’s chief prosecutor Tetsuya Sogi defended his office’s handling of the case against Ghosn.

In France, meanwhile, a suspect can’t be held in police custody for more than 24 hours unless there are exceptional circumstances. In serious cases, pre-trial detention can be extended up to 4 years and 8 months.

Being detained for four years, Zimeray said, is extremely rare and he hasn’t seen it applied during his decades of legal practice.

The lawyer argued that even though the matter should have been handled within the company, if Ghosn were arrested in France for the same allegations, the auto executive wouldn’t be detained for as long as he was.

France used to ban the presence of a lawyer during interrogations, he said. But it’s now normal practice in the country, after a series of reforms were spurred by condemnation from the European Court of Human Rights.

In the interview, Zimeray repeated that Ghosn is innocent but did not reveal any new information to support the claim, saying “as soon as the Japanese defense lawyers get access to the full file, there will be answers.”

“When you look into these accusations, they are very poor,” he said.

In March, Zimeray and other lawyers turned to the United Nations’ working group on human rights to essentially name and shame the Japanese judiciary’s management of Ghosn’s case.

Ghosn was arrested on Nov. 19 last year on suspicion of deliberately underreporting ¥4.86 billion of his income from fiscal 2010 to 2014. The money, Ghosn has said, was hypothetical and would not be paid before retirement.

Even though he was released on bail in March after spending 108 days in confinement, he was rearrested again about a month later — on a charge of misappropriating Nissan’s money for his own gain.

The former auto titan was then released after a few weeks but was restricted from seeing his wife, Carole, as one of the conditions for bail. The Tokyo court has repeatedly turned down Ghosn’s requests to meet his wife.

“The reason why I’m proud to defend him is because this cause is not only about one person,” Zimeray said. “It will help all sorts of (people) in Japan and elsewhere who are innocent and have to face an unfair system.”

Staff writer Masahiko Fukada contributed to this report. Information from AP added.

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