TOKYO — Wherever he goes, Carlos Ghosn has an outsize impact. As boss of Renault and then Nissan, he developed a reputation as a superstar businessman, but also a lightning rod for concerns about executive pay.
His presence in an unheated detention cell shone an unflattering light on Japan’s justice system, and now his dramatic escape to Lebanon promises to be no less impactful.
Already, the Japanese and Lebanese governments are cautiously eyeing the diplomatic fallout and the impact of popular sentiment — warmly pro-Ghosn in his new home, increasingly unfavorable in his former place of business.
“Running away is a cowardly act that mocks Japan’s justice system,” the Yomiuri Shimbun, Japan’s biggest newspaper by circulation, wrote on Wednesday, channeling a sense of wounded pride at the way the country’s security apparatus was so easily outfoxed.
By leaving, Ghosn had “lost the opportunity to prove his innocence and vindicate his honor,” the paper added, also apportioning a share of the blame to the court, his defense lawyers and immigration officials.
But liberals are no less frustrated by Ghosn’s departure. As a prisoner, he had been a powerful personification of the argument that Japan’s justice system, so heavily weighted in favor of prosecutors, was an international embarrassment and needed to be reformed.
“The defendant Ghosn insists he escaped political persecution,” the liberal Tokyo Shimbun wrote, “but traveling abroad without permission is against the conditions of his bail and mocks the Japanese justice system.”
Lebanon has no extradition treaty with Japan, and it was now unlikely Ghosn would ever face trial here, the paper added, “and his argument that he wants to prove his innocence is now in question.”
In a statement, Ghosn said he had not fled justice but “escaped injustice and political persecution.”
He said he would no longer be “held hostage by a rigged Japanese justice system where guilt is presumed, discrimination is rampant, and basic human rights are denied.”
Foreign business executives in Japan have long felt Ghosn was treated harshly as a foreigner while Japanese business executives routinely escape prosecution for worse offenses, and the mood remained largely sympathetic after his release, according to one executive who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive issue.
Ghosn’s prolonged detention — more than 100 days before he was first granted bail in March — had drawn attention to what critics call “hostage justice,” a tactic used by prosecutors to prolong incarceration to extract confessions.
Prosecutors told local media that Ghosn’s escape had vindicated their fears when they had opposed bail. Yasuyuki Takai, an attorney, former prosecutor and vocal defender of the current system, said the case had thrown into question a recent trend for courts to be more lenient in granting bail.
“Legal authorities and the legislative branch of the government should move swiftly to discuss a new legal system and mechanism to prevent escapes,” he told state broadcaster NHK. “And until the directions of the discussions have become clear, they should suspend the loosening trend.”
Reformist legal experts, though, argued that Ghosn’s escape only underlined that the current system was broken.
“It is extremely unfortunate that the brave decision by the court to grant bail against the prosecutors’ arguments turned out to be betrayed,” wrote Nobuo Gohara, a former prosecutor and critic of the current system.
“And yet, we must not simplify the issue as that the court should not have given bail in the first place just because the defendant Mr. Ghosn violated the conditions for bail and departed the country and ‘escaped.’ ”
Former Tokyo governor Yoichi Masuzoe, an outspoken critic of the current administration, renewed his call for the system to be reformed, to defend basic human rights and bring it into line with other developed countries.
“Otherwise, the image of a country where suspects are subject to long-term detention in even economic cases will be known around the world, and it will discourage talented foreigners from coming to Japan to expand their businesses,” he wrote in a blog post.
Wounded pride in Japan was met by the opposite feeling in Lebanon, where Ghosn’s business success has long made him a popular figure.
While it remained unclear how Ghosn had escaped surveillance and border controls in Japan, he entered Lebanon carrying his French passport and a Lebanese ID card, said a Lebanese security official who was not authorized to comment publicly. Ghosn’s Japanese lawyers insist they still have all his passports in their possession under the terms of his bail.
Ricardo Karam, a television host and close friend of Ghosn, said the businessman had entered the country using his French passport “for sure because he had it.”
Karam added: “This had to happen because otherwise it could have dragged on for 10 to 15 years of unjust detention, in a place where the laws are old and isolationist.”
In a statement Tuesday, Lebanon’s Foreign Ministry insisted that Ghosn had entered at dawn on Monday “legally, as confirmed by Lebanese General Security.”
The Foreign Ministry also reiterated its frustration with Japan, saying that several letters had been sent to Tokyo a year ago on his case “that went unanswered” and that a whole file had been handed to the Japanese deputy foreign minister during his recent visit to Beirut.
Lebanese officials said they had offered to try Ghosn under international anti-corruption agreements, while the Foreign Ministry added it wished to maintain good relations with Tokyo.
Ghosn enjoys close ties with members of Lebanon’s political and business elite, and there was widespread speculation in Japan that he might have enjoyed high-level support from Beirut in his escape.
While some people argued on Twitter that Japan should cancel its modest aid for Lebanon — amounting to around $20 million in 2017 — a senior Foreign Ministry official told the Asahi Shimbun that the ministry would decide what to do “in consultation with the Justice Ministry,” but added, “we have not yet decided on how to bring up this issue with the Lebanese government” because the Japanese government still did not know if its Lebanon counterpart was involved or not.
One thing appears clear, though: Ghosn has lost all hope of seeing the record $14 million he had posted as bail, with prosecutors already moving to ask the court to rescind the bail. With net worth estimated by Bloomberg at $120 million a year ago, that was obviously a price he was prepared to pay.
In Beirut, a handful of armed members of Lebanon’s internal security forces guarded a mansion belonging to Ghosn, along with some private security guards.
Suzan Haidamous and Sarah Dadouch in Beirut contributed to this report.