Ex-Nissan boss Carlos Ghosn plots PR campaign after extraordinary flit from Tokyo to Beirut

Ex-Nissan boss Carlos Ghosn plots PR campaign after extraordinary flit from Tokyo to Beirut
Ex-Nissan boss Carlos Ghosn plots PR campaign after extraordinary flit from Tokyo to Beirut

Quite whether Carlos Ghosn, who measures 5ft6in, would have fitted into either the double bass case or the kettle drum trunk supposedly used by a team of ex-special forces operatives to ghost him out of his Tokyo home remained a subject of lively debate on Wednesday.

Indeed, the precise details of exactly how the 65-year-old car industry mogul was spirited out of Japan under the nose of those responsible for the 24-hour surveillance of his luxury residence remained obscured in a fog of diplomatic claim and counter-claim.

As officials and the media in Tokyo expressed fury at the contempt shown for the Japanese justice system by the former Nissan chairman’s audacious escape to Beirut in a private jet on 29 December, ministers in France and Lebanon insisted they had had no knowledge of the clandestine operation.

The one thing that was clear, however, was that Mr Ghosn, the one-time would-be impresario of the global motor trade who was arrested in November 2018 on fraud charges which he hotly denied, has barely begun the journey which he appears to hope will result in his rehabilitation as a dynamic car industry mogul rather than remaining mired in the allegation that he is a hubristic white collar crook.

Audacious escape

Carlos Ghosn and his wife Carole on the red carpet in Cannes, France, in 2016
Carlos Ghosn and his wife Carole on the red carpet in Cannes, France, in 2016 (Photo: Andreas Rentz/Getty)

In a statement released on New Year’s Eve following his audacious escape from house arrest in Tokyo, Mr Ghosn pledged that he would “finally communicate freely with the media”, indicating a public relations campaign that will cause consternation in Japan and France, where the businessman has citizenship and was the chief architect of the tie-up between the automotive behemoths of Renault, Nissan and later Mitsubishi.

It seemed clear that hostilities will commence next week on 8 January, when it was announced that he will hold a press conference in Beirut.

The principal target of Mr Ghosn’s ire is likely to be Japanese state and his former underlings at Nissan, some of whom he has effectively accused of framing him to ensure his plans for further integration with Renault did not proceed.

‘I have not fled justice’

In his statement, Mr Ghosn, who leaves behind him in Japan several properties and $14m (£11m) in now forfeit bail guarantees,  gave a flavour of things to come, saying: “I have not fled justice… I have escaped injustice and political persecution.”

There will be plenty in Japan, where the judicial system delivers an eyebrow-raising conviction rate of 99 per cent, who beg to differ.

The top-selling Tokyo newspaper Yomiuri Shimbun accused Mr Ghosn of a “cowardly act that mocks Japan’s justice system” while Japanese officials hinted darkly that they believed a “foreign state” may have at least turned a blind eye to the high-profile fugitive’s remarkable flit.

Well-planned and painstakingly-executed escape

The arrival of Mr Ghosn at his well-appointed Beirut home – one of several properties he was alleged to have inappropriately financed from Nissan’s coffers – was if nothing else well-planned and painstakingly executed.

Private security guards stand outside of the home of Carlos Ghosn in Beirut. By jumping bail, former Nissan Chairman Carlos Ghosn, who had long insisted on his innocence, has now committed a clear crime and can never return to Japan without going to jail (Photo: AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo)

A Lebanese television station broadcast the deliciously baroque suggestion, widely repeated on social media and beyond, that the escape was facilitated by a squad of crack mercenaries posing as members of a medieval music ensemble invited to play a Christmas recital at Mr Ghosn’s Tokyo residence.

It was claimed that despite 24-hour CCTV surveillance and the presence of guards from the police, the judicial authorities and even a detachment funded by Nissan, Mr Ghosn was able to slip into an empty musical instrument case (belonging either to a double bass or some kettle drums) and was then whisked to a private jet waiting at a suitably obscure airfield.

Video calls

There were further suggestions that waiting on board the jet was Mr Ghosn’s glamorous wife, Carole, who has been credited with masterminding the escape after the pair was barred by the Japanese courts from having any contact until they were very recently allowed to exchange video calls.

Salivating Hollywood script writers may yet be disappointed – another theory gaining currency on Wednesday was that Mr Ghosn simply travelled on a passport in a false name, being flown first to Turkey and then transferred to a second jet which touched down in Beirut shortly after 4am on 30 December.

Mrs Ghosn, who has not commented on her alleged involvement in the escape, told the Wall Street Journal that her reunion with her husband was “the best gift of my life”.

Three passports

Lebanon, which does not have an extradition treaty with Japan, will in all likelihood welcome Mr Ghosn with open arms. Born in Brazil, the tycoon returned to his ancestral Lebanon as a child and was raised there before completing his education in France – as a result, he holds passports from all three countries (a trio of documents which Mr Ghosn’s Tokyo lawyer insisted remained in his possession despite his client’s disappearance).

Such is Mr Ghosn’s standing in Lebanon that he once featured on one of the country’s stamps and was the subject of pictures on digital advertising hoardings last year which appeared with the slogan: “We are all Carlos Ghosn.”

The question to be answered now is just who that same Carlos Ghosn will turn out to be – a globetrotting deal maker with an enviable, and wrongly besmirched, record for turning a stable of ailing car makers into a world-beating conglomerate or a fugitive from justice whose final roll of the dice will have been to see out his days from a gilded cage of forced exile?

Local hero: How Carlos Ghosn will receive a warm welcome in Beirut

Carlos Ghosn
He was due to stand trial in Japan in early 2020 (Photo: AP/Koji Sasahara)

One again, Carlos Ghosn is sequestered inside a luxury residence where access is carefully supervised by uniformed guards in the most expensive neighbourhood of a capital city.

This time, however, the city is the Middle Eastern playground of Beirut rather than Tokyo – and the guards are financed by Mr Ghosn himself to keep unwanted onlookers away, rather than employees of the Japanese state paid to enforce his house arrest.

The one-time chairman of Nissan, and now an international fugitive who continues to fiercely plead his innocence, was believed to be in the £11m colonial-style mansion in Beirut’s historic heart bought during his tenure at the helm of the Japanese car maker.

The absence of an extradition agreement between Beirut and Tokyo means that when Mr Ghosn, who was raised in more modest circumstances in another corner of Beirut, eventually emerges from his home he will be able to travel around Lebanon without fear of further arrest.

Indeed, he can look forward to visiting Ixsir, the successful boutique vineyard he co-founded in the green hills north of Beirut which are renowned for producing some of the world’s best red wines.

For many Lebanese, including those who supply the grapes for the wines, Mr Ghosn is something of a folk hero.

Despite his travails in Japan, he is seen as a proud example of Lebanon’s entrepreneurial spirit. Among the grape growers he is lauded for insisting that his winery buy their produce to put their small holdings on a stable economic footing.