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Once a hero in Japan, Carlos Ghosn's news conference unlikely to restore his image

by Satoshi Sugiyama

Staff Writer

In an extraordinary news conference 14 months in the making, Carlos Ghosn lambasted Nissan Motor Co. executives, Japanese prosecutors and the nation’s justice system in what was a watershed moment for a corporate crime drama that has made global headlines and stirred talks of a Hollywood production.

By fleeing to Lebanon and thus freeing himself from the legal risks that would have come from speaking to the media in Japan, the former Nissan chairman was granted his long-held wish to provide his own account in his own words. He made full use of the opportunity — speaking for an hour before answering questions from reporters — and covered topics including harrowing accounts of his detention, while also outing Nissan executives that he says had a role in bringing him down.

While international media has focused much of its coverage on criticisms of the Japanese criminal justice system, domestic media outlets have been more critical of Ghosn violating bail conditions and leaving the country without facing trial.

Japanese legal and communication experts say the news conference, Ghosn’s first since his arrest, will have done little to turn the tide of public opinion in Japan and restore his reputation, which has been tainted by his alleged financial wrongdoing.

“Ghosn didn’t have anything substantive to say,” said Yasuyuki Takai, an attorney and a former prosecutor based in Tokyo. “If he wants to restore trust, he shouldn’t do a self-absorbed speech like he did, but he should calmly make specific explanations and present evidence supporting those explanations.”

If anything, the news conference was a master class in chaos, with reporters shouting questions over one another in four different languages — English, French, Portuguese and Arabic — in a packed conference room.

As expected, Ghosn denounced Nissan and the Japanese judicial system with incendiary adjectives such as “brutal,” “inhumane” and “anachronistic” throughout the lengthy news conference.

While criticism of the justice system is nothing new in Japan, it hasn’t picked up the momentum seen abroad, partly due to a difference of understanding regarding the legal rights of a suspect from what is widely accepted in other developed countries, such as the presence of a lawyer during questioning.

Ghosn gave detailed accounts of his alleged mistreatment while he was held at the Tokyo Detention House, claiming he had been interrogated without lawyers, with prosecutors repeatedly pressuring him to confess to charges of financial misconduct.

Ghosn claimed that he was left with the sole choice of dying or escaping. He said he was treated like a terrorist.

“I already felt as if I were dead, since Nov. 19, 2018,” the day of his arrest, he said.

“For 17 years I was a role model in Japan. And all of a sudden, a few prosecutors and a bunch of executives decided ‘this guy is a cold, cold, greedy dictator,'” Ghosn said. “I like Japan, I like the people of Japan. Why Japan is repaying me with evil, for the good that I did to the country, I don’t understand.”

At one point, he even invoked Japan’s sneak attack on Pearl Harbor to describe his ordeal.

But then he showered Japan and Japanese with praise, noting that he didn’t need bodyguards while he was on the street.

Expectations had been running high that Ghosn would drop the names of high-ranking Japanese government officials he has alluded to as being behind his astonishing downfall. But he didn’t go beyond what had been made public and declined to get into a detailed account of how he escaped Japan.

Ghosn had previously attempted to hold a news conference while he was out on bail last April, but was rearrested before it could be held. Even after his release, his legal team in Japan apparently dissuaded him from doing so, for fear of putting himself in further legal jeopardy.

Many Japanese media organizations were not allowed to participate in the news conference in Beirut.

Yu Taniguchi, editor-in-chief of monthly public relations magazine Senden Kaigi and an associate professor at the Graduate School of Information and Communication in Tokyo, speculated that domestic media coverage of him will become more critical, noting the Japanese public is already dismissive of him.

“From a Japanese perspective, the news conference didn’t quite appeal to Japanese national sentiment and was not successful in terms of a public relations strategy,” Taniguchi said.

“If Ghosn’s objective is to establish his innocence, this news conference may gain public approval outside of Japan, which could apply pressure on the Japanese legal system. But it’s unlikely Japan will condone interference from abroad, so he may not achieve his objective in the end.”

During the 2½-hour news conference, Ghosn held court before the reporters and presented documents on a projection screen that he said proves his innocence, although the documents were too small for most people to read.

As soon as his news conference wrapped up, the Japanese government launched a counterassault against Ghosn in a concerted effort to diminish the fallen auto titan’s criticisms of the nation’s legal system on the international stage.

Justice Minister Masako Mori held two news conferences to attack Ghosn and underscore that the Japanese legal system — dubbed by critics as “hostage justice” for its use of extended detentions and interrogations without a lawyer present — guarantees basic human rights. The minister called Ghosn’s comments “abstract, unclear or baseless assertions” and said his criticism is “off the mark.”

“If defendant Ghosn has anything to say, it is my strong hope that he engages in all possible efforts to make his case within Japan’s fair criminal justice proceedings, and that he seeks justice rendered by a Japanese court,” Mori said, adding she was committed to seeking all possible ways to make Ghosn appear in court.

She also fought back against Ghosn’s claim that prosecutors were involved in the coup aimed at ousting him. She denied the prosecutor’s offices would “take part in any kind of conspiracy.”

Ghosn jumped bail and fled to Beirut in late December, saying shortly afterward that he was dismayed by the “rigged Japanese justice system” where “guilt is presumed, discrimination is rampant, and basic human rights are denied.”

He reportedly hid in a large black case that was too big to fit into the airport’s X-ray machines, and was smuggled out of the country via a private jet with assistance from a team of professionals on Dec. 29 from Osaka to Beirut, via Istanbul.

His audacious flight has also put Japan’s bail system under scrutiny, with some saying it should become much stricter. The incident provides lessons on how it should be operated but won’t go against a trend that has seen it become more liberal, said Shin Ushijima, a corporate lawyer.

Ushijima said he doesn’t believe the Japanese justice system is perfect but characterized Ghosn’s criticism toward prosecutors as “laughable.” Prosecutors have to obey the court, which prevents them from doing whatever they want, he said. In his 40 years as an attorney, Ushijima says he hasn’t felt prosecutors have an advantage in swaying the court to get a warrant.

“I am wondering why (Ghosn) doesn’t fight,” Ushijima said. By escaping, he said Ghosn “lost integrity … became a person who fled justice. In that way, it’s regrettable.”

Tokyo prosecutors last year charged the 65-year-old, who holds French, Lebanese and Brazilian citizenship, with falsifying his income by ¥9.1 billion over an eight-year period. Ghosn’s legal team insists the former CEO, who claimed the money would be paid after his retirement, didn’t receive any unreported compensation and that Nissan never committed to pay him.

Ghosn is also accused of making Nissan shoulder the cost of his personal losses from currency derivative trading as well as expropriating its subsidiary’s money to a Saudi firm and an Omani distributor, some of which was diverted to him for his personal gain. The defense team has contended that Nissan suffered no losses and that the payments to those parties were legal.

Ghosn and his defense team have alleged that Nissan feared he would further integrate the company with its alliance partner Renault SA, jeopardizing the former’s autonomy, so its executives solicited help from prosecutors and the government in a bid to kick him out of the company.

Two of the people Ghosn identified during the news conference — former Nissan CEO Hiroto Saikawa and Masakazu Toyoda, a former Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry vice minister of international affairs — denied their involvement Thursday.

Even though Japan’s ambassador to Lebanon, Takeshi Okubo, has asked Lebanese President Michel Aoun to assist Japan in the case, it is unlikely that Ghosn will be extradited back to Japan.

The two countries have no extradition agreement.

Staff writer Magdalena Osumi contributed to this report


Ghosn’s most memorable comments from his Lebanon news conference

Fugitive ex-Nissan boss Carlos Ghosn used his first public appearance in months to reiterate his claims of innocence and slam the automaker and prosecutors for orchestrating a plot to oust him.

Below are some of Ghosn’s comments:

  • “I was arrested on Nov. 19, 2018. I didn’t suspect anything….Did you notice what happened in Pearl Harbor? It is true that if it’s planned and it’s confidential and it’s secret, well it happens and you’ll be surprised and I was surprised.”
  • “For the first time since this nightmare began, I can defend myself, speak freely and answer your questions.”
  • “I did not escape justice, I fled injustice and persecution, political persecution. … I left Japan because I wanted justice.”
  • “There was no way I was going to be treated fairly. … This was not about justice: This was, as I felt, I was a hostage of a country that I have served for 17 years.”
  • “No sign that I was going to have a normal life for the next four or five years. … It’s not very difficult to come to the conclusion that you’re going to die in Japan, or you’re going to have to get out.”
  • “This (escape) was the most difficult decision of my life but I was facing a system where the conviction rate is 99.4 percent, and I believe this number is far higher for foreigners.”
  • “I was arrested for underreporting my compensation that was not fixed, that was not decided, that was not paid.”
  • “The charges against me are baseless.”
  • “I should never have been arrested in the first place.”
  • “I’m used to what you call ‘mission impossible.’ When I went to Japan in 1999, they said, ‘You will never make it.'”
  • “Some of our Japanese friends thought the only way to get rid of the influence of Renault on Nissan is to get rid of me.”
  • “The collusion between Nissan and prosecutors is everywhere. The only people who don’t see it, maybe, are the people in Japan.”
  • “For 17 years I was a role model in Japan. And all of a sudden, a few prosecutors and a bunch of executives decided ‘this guy is a cold, cold, greedy dictator.”
  • “I like Japan, I like the people of Japan. Why Japan is repaying me with evil, for the good that I did to the country, I don’t understand.”
  • “I’m not above the law and I welcome the opportunity for the truth to come out and have my name cleared.”