National / Crime & Legal

Japan's justice chief and prosecutors indignant in wake of Ghosn escape

AFP-JIJI, Kyodo, AP

Carlos Ghosn’s escape to Lebanon is “unjustifiable” and likely involved “illegal methods,” Justice Minister Masako Mori said Sunday in her first official public comments on the case.

The stunning flight of Nissan’s former boss is the latest twist in a murky boardroom and legal saga that has gripped the business world and left authorities here red-faced and scrambling to defend Japan’s justice system from fierce international criticism.

Ghosn, who was out on bail following months of extended detention, was awaiting trial over multiple counts of financial misconduct that he denies.

“Our country’s criminal justice system sets out appropriate procedures to clarify the truth of cases and is administered appropriately, while guaranteeing basic individual human rights. Flight by a defendant on bail is unjustifiable,” Mori said in a statement.

Mori vowed to beef up immigration checks — starting with departures.

“It is clear that we do not have records of the defendant Ghosn departing Japan. It is believed that he used some wrongful methods to illegally leave the country. It is extremely regrettable that we have come to this situation,” she added.

She confirmed Ghosn’s bail had been canceled and that Interpol had issued a nonbinding Red Notice on Japan’s behalf.

In a separate statement released Sunday, the Tokyo District Public Prosecutor’s Office said the auto industry tycoon had “knowingly flouted” Japan’s judicial procedures.

In their first remarks since his dramatic escape just before New Year’s, the prosecutors said they felt vindicated in arguing that Ghosn should be kept in custody.

“The defendant Ghosn had abundant financial power and multiple foreign bases. It was easy for him to flee,” the statement said. He had “significant influence” inside Japan and globally, and there was a “realistic danger” he would destroy evidence related to the case, they added.

The Ghosn case has dragged Japan’s justice system back into the international spotlight. The system has come under heavy fire for authorities’ ability to hold suspects almost indefinitely while pending trial.

Ghosn twice won bail by persuading the court he was not a flight risk — decisions seen as controversial at the time. Prosecutors argue that lengthy detention is required to prove guilt beyond doubt, and that they are unwilling to charge if their case is not ironclad.

The court is fair and will only find people guilty beyond reasonable doubt, the statement claimed.

Ghosn himself has said he left because he was no longer willing to be “held hostage by a rigged Japanese justice system.”

Authorities have launched a probe into the humiliating security lapse, and prosecutors said they would “coordinate with the relevant agencies to swiftly and appropriately investigate the matter.”

Prosecutors confiscated Ghosn’s French, Lebanese and Brazilian passports, which had been held at his lawyers’ office in Tokyo, but it has emerged that he had a second French passport in his possession.

Ghosn apparently left his home in Tokyo and departed the country from Kansai International Airport in Osaka on a private jet on Dec. 29. The Wall Street Journal reported Friday that Ghosn was packed into a case typically used for concert audio equipment and sneaked onto the jet.

Lebanon’s acting justice minister said Friday in Beirut that the country is unlikely to hand over Ghosn. “In the absence of any agreement with Japan in matters related to extradition, then the sovereign context that governs the situation is executed,” Albert Serhan said after the escape.

Serhan also said in a telephone interview that Ghosn has the “right to be tried” in Lebanon, where he is a citizen, if he is suspected of committing any criminal act under the country’s law.

According to local reports Thursday, Lebanese authorities will question Ghosn in the near future in light of Interpol’s Red Notice.

Serhan said: “The Japanese authorities can take part or contribute to or take notice of the judicial procedures.”

Japanese prosecutors have asked Ghosn’s legal team to submit a computer he used as well as records on who he met with, Junichiro Hironaka, one of his lawyers, told reporters in Tokyo on Saturday. Meeting for the first time since Ghosn’s escape, the members agreed to make an attempt at contact through lawyers in Lebanon. They said they plan to quit if Ghosn approves.

Takashi Takano, another lawyer for Ghosn, said in a blog post Saturday that he felt outraged and betrayed by his client’s escape but also expressed an understanding of his feelings about not being able to get a fair trial.

“My anger gradually began to turn to something else,” Takano wrote.

Referring to Japan’s judicial system, he said, “I was betrayed, but the one who betrayed me is not Carlos Ghosn.”

Takano described how Ghosn was barred from seeing his wife, which Takano called a human rights violation, and how he was worried about whether he would get a fair trial given the prosecutors’ leaks to the media. Ghosn, 65, was also worried about the prospect of the legal process taking years to conclude.

Takano, the main lawyer in charge of Ghosn’s bail, acknowledged that most suspects would not be able to pull off an escape such as Ghosn’s but “certainly would have tried” if they could, he said.

Takano said he told Ghosn that in all the cases he has handled, there had been none in which the evidence was so scant, and that the chances of winning an innocent verdict were good, even if the trial was unfair.

Takano said the last time he saw Ghosn was Christmas Eve, when he was sitting in on a one-hour video call between Ghosn and his wife, Carole. Under the bail conditions, a lawyer’s presence is required for the calls, and the length of the call is also restricted.

Takano, fluent in English, said Ghosn expressed his unfailing love for his family and ended the call with an “I love you.”