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'I alone organized my departure,' Carlos Ghosn says of Japan escape

AP, AFP-JIJI, Reuters, JIJI

Interpol issued a wanted notice Thursday for former Nissan Chairman Carlos Ghosn, who jumped bail in Japan and fled to Lebanon rather than face trial on financial misconduct charges in a dramatic escape that has confounded and embarrassed authorities.

Lebanese Justice Minister Albert Serhan said in an interview that Lebanon “will carry out its duties,” suggesting for the first time that the automotive titan may be brought in for questioning. But he said Ghosn entered the country on a legal passport, and he appeared to cast doubt on the possibility Lebanon would hand Ghosn over to Japan.

The Interpol notice is the latest twist in Ghosn’s daring escape, which spanned three continents and involved private planes, multiple passports and international intrigue. Turkey made several arrests Thursday as part of an investigation into how he passed through the country.

Ghosn’s arrival in Lebanon jolted the nation, already in the midst of a crippling political impasse and its worst economic crisis in decades. Lebanon must now decide how to deal with the Interpol-issued Red Notice, which is a nonbinding request to law enforcement agencies worldwide that they locate and provisionally arrest a fugitive. A Red Notice is not an arrest warrant and does not require Lebanon to arrest Ghosn.

Shortly afterward, Ghosn issued a statement — his second this week — seeking to distance his Lebanese wife and family from any role in his escape. “The allegations in the media that my wife Carole and other members of my family played a role in my departure from Japan are false and misleading. I alone organized my departure. My family played no role,” he said.

The exact circumstances of the escape by the former Renault and Nissan boss from a court case he said was “rigged” were unclear but media reports described a plot that had all the trappings of a spy novel.

Turkey said seven people had been detained for questioning, including four pilots, over how the wanted tycoon was able to transit through Istanbul.

Turkish private aircraft operator MNG Jet said Friday that its planes were used illegally in Ghosn’s escape from Japan, adding it had filed a criminal complaint. In a statement, the jet operator said one of its employees admitted to having falsified the records to exclude Ghosn’s name from official documentation without the company’s knowledge.

Ghosn, who had been under house arrest in Tokyo since April, was believed to be holed up in his Beirut residence, where visitors filed in and out under the scrutiny of TV cameras.

His surprise return to Lebanon just before New Year’s Eve raised fresh questions over his judicial status and marked the latest twist in a saga that has rocked the automotive and business world for more than a year.

Ghosn stands accused in Japan of deferring part of his salary until after his retirement and concealing this from shareholders, as well as siphoning off millions in Nissan cash for his own purposes.

His escape caused deep embarrassment in Japan, where prosecutors launched an investigation into the security lapse and searched his residence Thursday.

Investigative sources said Friday security camera footage shows Ghosn left his house in Minato Ward on his own about noon Sunday.

No image of him returning to the residence or that of any suspicious person was recorded by the security camera set up there, according to the sources.

Prosecutors are probing the possibility that Ghosn went to an airport after meeting with his collaborators somewhere following his departure from the Tokyo home.

According to Kyodo News, Ghosn was smuggled out with the help of two private security operatives who pretended to be part of a music band for a Christmas party at his residence.

Quoting a Lebanese consultant in Tokyo, Kyodo said Ghosn hid in an instrument case before boarding a private jet — a scenario a member of Ghosn’s entourage has previously denied.

One of the operatives was a former U.S. Marine employed by a U.S. security firm while the second worked for a Lebanese firm, Kyodo said.

More details could emerge when the former tycoon, who was first arrested in November 2018, speaks to the press in Beirut next week.

The investigation is focused on two flights.

The first, a Bombardier plane, flew from Osaka, landed in Istanbul on Monday at 5:15 a.m. and parked in a hangar.

The second was a private jet to Beirut, a Bombardier Challenger 300 TC-RZA, which left 45 minutes later, according to the Turkish news agency DHA.

Ghosn was able to enter Lebanon on a French passport, according to airport documents seen by AFP.

NHK reported that the court in Tokyo had allowed Ghosn to keep a second French passport so long as it was kept “in a locked case” with the key held by his lawyers.

Although Ghosn was restricted to his lush Beirut home only by the media’s glare, not all in Lebanon welcomed his return.

Three lawyers submitted a report to the public prosecutor demanding that the businessman be prosecuted over a trip he made to Israel in 2008.

“Doing business with Israel is not a matter of opinion — any normalization is forbidden by law,” said Hassan Bazzi, one of the lawyers.

Lebanon is technically still at war with Israel, which occupied the south of the country until 2000, and forbids its citizens from traveling there.

Ghosn had traveled to Israel and met then-President Shimon Peres as part of a trip to support a partnership with an Israeli entrepreneur launching an electric car venture.

Some Lebanese see Ghosn as a symbol of their country’s fabled entrepreneurial genius and a proud representative of its vast diaspora.

However, the mood has changed since his November 2018 arrest: Weeks into an unprecedented wave of protests against corruption and nepotism, activists saw his return as another manifestation of privilege and impunity for the superrich.

Sources close to Ghosn said Thursday he decided to flee after learning that his trial had been delayed until April 2021 and also because he had not been allowed to speak to his wife.

The sources said he learned at a recent court hearing that one of his two trials in Japan would be delayed until April 2021 from an original date of September 2020. There was not a firm date set for either trial but at least one was widely expected to start in April this year.