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Former Nissan boss complains of ‘corrupt, inhumane’ justice system in Japan in first public appearance since escape

Nissan's former chairman Carlos Ghosn speaks at a press conference in Beirut, Lebanon, Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2020. (AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo)

TOKYO - Carlos Ghosn proclaimed his innocence on Wednesday in his first public appearance since his escape from Japan, complaining of what he said was a conspiracy to bring him down and a corrupt, inhumane, anachronistic and hostile justice system in Japan.

Ghosn stunned Japan last week by jumping bail and fleeing to Lebanon, evading trial on four charges of financial misconduct while running the Nissan auto company.

"These allegations are untrue, and I should never have been arrested in the first place," he said. "I'm here to clear my name."

Ghosn complained of a "systematic campaign by a handful of malevolent actors to destroy my reputation and impugn my character" because of his plans for a closer partnership between alliance partners Nissan and Renault, and of his detention under a "corrupt and hostile system that presumed my guilt from day one."

After his arrest in November 2018, Ghosn says he was kept in a tiny cell in solitary confinement, with lights kept on during the day and night, and faced hours of interrogation without his lawyer being present, a system he called "anachronistic and inhumane" that "violates the most basic principles of humanity."

Japan's legal system rests on the right of prosecutors to detain people without charge and subject them to relentless interrogation without the presence of defense counsel until they confess or incriminate themselves, a system criticized as amounting to "hostage justice."

Suspects must be indicted or charged after 23 days, but Ghosn was simply rearrested on slightly different charges to prolong his detention for more 100 days. He was then released on bail, only to be rearrested when he threatened to hold a news conference inside Japan.

The whole case, he said, was cooked up between Nissan, the Japanese government and prosecutors to prevent closer relations between the Japanese automotive giant and its French partner Renault.

"Some of our Japanese friends thought the only way to get rid of the influence of Renault over Nissan was to get rid of me, and unfortunately they were right," he said. "The collusion between Nissan and prosecutors are everywhere, the only people who don't see it, maybe, are the people in Japan."

Ghosn named executives in Nissan he alleged were involved in the plot to bring him down, but said he would not name Japanese government officials involved out of respect to the Lebanese government and people. But he said he did not believe Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was involved.

Ghosn was charged with underreporting his income and diverting company funds for his own benefit. But Ghosn said the income had never been paid to him, and the final amount had not even been decided or fixed.

Despite his protestations of innocence, Nissan and the Japanese government are not his only accusers. Renault, initially supportive, said its investigation found evidence of unethical practices, removing him from office and canceling his pension.

In September, Ghosn paid the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission $1 million to settle fraud charges for failing to disclose $140 million to be paid to him in retirement. Under that deal, Nissan was also forced to pay $15 million to settle charges that the car company and Ghosn neither admitted nor denied.

Nevertheless, many legal experts share Ghosn's serious concerns with Japan's justice system, while many foreign business executives say it is unthinkable that powerful, well-connected Japanese businesspeople would have faced similar treatment by the country's legal system.

Ghosn said his trial was being "constantly postponed," adding that learned on Dec. 25 that a second trial of some of the charges would not start before 2021 at the earliest at the prosecutor's request.

All the time, he said, he was not allowed to see his wife Carole, supposedly because they might conspire to tamper with evidence but actually as a pressure tactic, he said.

"They knew I love Carole, and she's a pillar for me," he said. "Because they know all of this they said, 'OK, we're going to put him on his knees - we're gonna cut him from his wife.' "

Over time, it became very clear that he had no chance of a fair trial in Japan, he said, while he had "no horizon" to see his wife, forcing him to flee to Lebanon.

"I said: 'What is left? What is left? I had to leave," he said. "It's not very difficult come to the conclusion that you're going to die in Japan or you have to get out."

Defense lawyers in Japan complain that prosecutors routinely delay or deny them access to evidence, or even destroy evidence, while leaking damning details to the press, but the country's Justice Ministry says it sees no need to change the system.

Ghosn said he had been portrayed in Japan as a greedy, corrupt dictator, with sections of the media uncritically reporting information illegally leaked from the prosecutor's office.

"Why Japan is paying me with evil for the good I think I have done to the country? I don't understand this," he said. "I know the people of Japan aren't like this."

The war of words has intensified this week in the run-up to Ghosn's public appearance.

On Wednesday, Ghosn's defense team accused Nissan of a "gross perversion of the truth" for claiming that it conducted a robust internal investigation into its former boss.

The Japanese carmaker issued a statement Tuesday saying it would continue to pursue legal action "to hold Ghosn accountable for the harm that his misconduct has caused" to the company, citing "incontrovertible evidence" of various acts including the misstatement of his compensation and "misappropriation of the company's assets for his personal benefit."

But Ghosn's international defense team issued a scathing rebuttal on Wednesday.

"The facts demonstrate that investigation was never about finding the truth; it was initiated and carried out for the specific, predetermined purpose of taking down Carlos Ghosn to prevent him from further integrating Nissan and Renault, which threatened the independence of Nissan, one of Japan's iconic, flagship companies," the statement said.

Nissan's investigation, it said, was run by executive Hari Nada, "whose own conduct was the subject of the investigation," with the help of the company's long-standing outside counsel, which had already given the company legal advice on the same issue. Nissan never sought to interview Ghosn nor shared with him or the public the evidence it purported to find, it said.

"These are not the hallmarks of a company committed to conducting fair and impartial investigation, rather evidence that Nissan's investigation was fundamentally flawed, biased, and lacking in independence from its inception," the legal team said.

The scandal has damaged Nissan's image and left the car company grappling with plunging sales and profits. But it has also tarnished Ghosn's reputation.,He has been fired by both Nissan and Renault has become a fugitive with an Interpol red notice against his name.

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Sly reported from Beirut. The Washington Post’s Asser Khattab in Beirut and Paul Schemm in Dubai contributed to this report.

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