Why Carlos Ghosn chose the life of a fugitive
At lunchtime on Christmas Day, after a year wrestling with the Japanese justice system and watching his wealth and business legacy evaporate, Carlos Ghosn was close to snapping-point.
The 65-year-old former Nissan chairman imagined many bleak years confined to Tokyo, fighting — perhaps unsuccessfully — to clear his name. Even toying with the idea of making a television or Hollywood drama about his experiences could not dispel the gloom. Facing the possibility of prison time, and especially following a dispiriting meeting with lawyers and Japanese court officials on December 25, he had started telling friends he “might be 75” before he ever left Japan.
But as a business leader who built a global reputation on planning and bold risk-taking, he had already hatched a meticulous, high-risk plan. For over three months, hidden by a mundane daily life of walks to a local French bakery and trips to the gym, Mr Ghosn had calculated a way to spirit himself out of Tokyo and into Lebanon — the country of his parents’ birth and where his image once appeared on a stamp.
In the early afternoon of December 29, state broadcaster NHK, citing investigators, reported that footage retrieved from the court-ordered cameras angled above his front door showed Ghosn casually strolling alone out of the large house he was renting. For reasons that remain unclear, Mr Ghosn was not followed. Although Japan has a reputation for organisational competence, said one Japanese legal expert, it can leave surprisingly large loopholes. Nobody seems to have seen Mr Ghosn in Tokyo after 1pm that day but his timing was perfect — the whole of Japan was looking the other way as the country prepared for an unusually long New Year shutdown.
The next time the world heard from Mr Ghosn, he had entered Lebanon and was now unambiguously on the wrong side of the law. In a short written statement, he stressed the morality of his escape, criticising the “rigged” Japanese system he had just fled.
Mr Ghosn’s miraculous disappearing act has reverberated from Tokyo to Beirut, provoking dozens of theories over its mechanics. But it has also left bigger questions of cost: to Mr Ghosn, to his legal team in Tokyo, to Japan’s justice system, to the Lebanese government and to many others affected by or involved with the great escape. Seven people have already been detained in Turkey, where the jet carrying Mr Ghosn from Osaka briefly stopped. On Monday, when Japan returns to work, his Japanese lawyers are expected to face stern interrogation over what, if anything, they knew.
Critical details of the escape remain a mystery, even to close friends. It was met with unadulterated shock in Paris with one formerly close associate saying “this is simply unbelievable”, while another said “I literally don’t know what to say.”
Inside Nissan, some tried to put on a brave face saying Mr Ghosn’s escape would not affect the new leadership team that was put in place only a month ago. “Who’s going to believe him now?” says one former executive. But others expressed concern that Mr Ghosn’s planned press events next week would be a distraction for its new chief executive Makoto Uchida, who faces the double challenge of reviving its business and repairing ties with Renault.
The Japanese authorities, red-faced at their failure to secure their highest-profile suspect in years, are still attempting to unravel how he made it from Tokyo to an airport in Osaka 400km away. For the whole scheme to work, and to cause one of the most recognisable figures in Japan to vanish from under 24-hour surveillance, commented one of the small circle of people who regularly met Mr Ghosn during his time on bail, it had to be “flawless and brilliant”.
The plan he had concocted, by engaging multiple teams of private security experts and ex-military operatives, would cost him an estimated $20m in expenses and forfeit bail money, humiliate Japan’s prosecutors in front of the world and confirm warnings from Nissan and elsewhere that a man famous for arriving everywhere by private jet could always find a way to escape in one.
“It’s hugely embarrassing for Japan, it makes a mockery of their system,” says one former Ghosn associate who worked in Japan for close to a decade. “The Japanese have their system and that’s all they care about. He was a flight risk, and he proved he was a flight risk.”
The extent of that risk became clearer on Friday when the Turkish private jet operator MNG Jet filled in a piece of the puzzle of Mr Ghosn’s escape. The company admitted that it supplied the Bombardier Global Express that took Mr Ghosn from Osaka to Istanbul and a second, smaller plane that took him from Istanbul to Beirut.
But the firm, which has filed a criminal complaint against those allegedly involved in “illegal use of its jet charter services”, claimed that a staffer had arranged the two flights without the knowledge of senior management. It said that Mr Ghosn’s name had not appeared on any official documentation for the two flights.
Behind Mr Ghosn’s Christmas Day frustration were months of perceived indignities and injustices that started with the former Nissan chairman’s arrest at Tokyo’s Haneda airport in November 2018, continued with his interrogation-packed 129-day stint behind bars and culminated in what friends described as a “half-life” of bail conditions that put him under heavy surveillance and forbade him seeing his wife, Carole.
Fundamentally, though, his frustrations centred on the criminal trial he has now avoided in favour of life as a fugitive. His distrust in the Japanese justice system stems from his belief that the four charges of financial misconduct he now faces were the result of a plot by Nissan, prosecutors and Japanese government to prevent a foreigner from merging the Japanese carmaker with its French partner Renault.
On Christmas Eve, as a bleak reminder of how far Mr Ghosn had fallen, he was permitted to speak to Carole for a short time with his lawyer watching. Prosecutors had denied his legal team access to about 6,000 pieces of evidence that could be favourable for his case, and even simple requests such as seeking Japanese interpretation for Mr Ghosn were taking months.
But the heaviest blow came on December 25 when, at a meeting with his Japanese legal team and court officials, he was told that his trial on the charges of breach of trust might not even begin for another 10 months. Mr Ghosn “came to realise that he was never going to be tried because they kept delaying and delaying and delaying,” said the friend.
Despite Mr Ghosn’s outward confidence that he would eventually clear his name, and a team of top defence lawyers, some suspect that he knew the odds were not in his favour. One person who worked closely with Mr Ghosn says: “There was no chance he was not going to go to jail. I think he looked at the options and thought a life in Lebanon fighting to save my reputation is better than a 10-year stretch in a Japanese jail.”
So far, reaction from Japanese authorities has been muted with all public offices closed during the extended New Year holiday. Prosecutors searched Mr Ghosn’s house earlier this week, looking for clues on his escape route. But already, Japanese government officials are privately expressing concerns about whether the justice ministry and prosecutors have enough experience in cross-border cases and the global intelligence-gathering network to pursue Mr Ghosn. The Tokyo Public Prosecutors Office, the Tokyo District Court and the Ministry of Justice could not be reached for comment.
Mr Ghosn’s return to his parents’ native Lebanon, apparently unnoticed through Beirut’s Rafic Hariri International Airport using a French passport and a Lebanese ID, comes at an uncomfortable time for the country.
Beirut is tackling a financial crisis, which has led its leaders to appeal to international allies for help. And it has been rocked by protests against its political elites since mid-October, which triggered the collapse of the government.
As a result, political sympathy for Mr Ghosn is limited. “He came back to us with his problems,” says a Lebanese politician involved in foreign affairs, who complains that Mr Ghosn doesn’t even use the Arabic pronunciation of his name, Gh-oss-un. “The last thing Lebanon needs right now is an issue with a major country like Japan.”
But as the world waits until next week for whatever details of the escape to emerge from press events by Mr Ghosn, a significant financial mystery may remain. People briefed on Mr Ghosn’s activities said it was likely that he used former US military officials to smuggle himself out of Japan, an expensive operation that could potentially cost him several million dollars. “It’s a complete mystery how he got the money,” says one person close to Nissan.
Even including a $17m pay package in 2017-18, investments he made in real estate and other assets, people close to Nissan say it was still inconceivable he would have so much cash at hand to pull off the operation to flee Japan.
In addition to the fees he is theoretically paying to legal and communications teams across the world, Mr Ghosn recently agreed to pay $1m to settle fraud charges with the US Securities and Exchange Commission. Japanese authorities also plan to confiscate a total of nearly $14m he posted to the Tokyo District Court to be granted bail.
But the executive frequently dubbed “le cost killer” for his financial prudence will have judged any expense worth it to win — at least for now — his freedom.
Additional reporting by David Keohane, Chloe Cornish and Laura Pitel