A year after his arrest, Carlos Ghosn’s strategy to exonerate himself from allegations of fraud and financial wrongdoing is becoming clearer: it’s all a conspiracy.
Out on bail, the former chairman and chief executive officer of the global alliance between Nissan Motor Co., Renault SA and Mitsubishi Motors Corp. intends to show that prosecutors, the trade ministry and the Japanese automaker colluded to arrest and charge him. They leaked “false information to the media to damage Mr. Ghosn’s reputation and impair his ability to receive a fair trial,” according to Junichiro Hironaka, Ghosn’s lead counsel.
While media attention has faded since his shock arrest last year, Ghosn’s legal battle is likely to be Japan’s biggest corporate trial. The outcome could also influence foreigners’ perceptions about working in Japan and fuel questions about the country’s legal system, in which prosecutors have a near-perfect conviction rate.
“It has been one full year since our client was ambushed and arrested without warning at Haneda Airport,” Hironaka said in a statement. “Prosecutors have repeatedly and systematically denied Mr. Ghosn fundamental rights of due process and turned the presumption of innocence on its head.”
The prosecutor’s office and Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry declined to comment. Nissan spokeswoman Azusa Momose said the company will take necessary steps for Ghosn to be accountable for his actions but declined to comment on the former chairman’s specific defense strategy.
Ghosn has hired more than a dozen lawyers and publicists to assert his innocence and defend his reputation. The team has been filing motions for dismissal and dealing with the media while Ghosn, 65, spends most days working in his lawyer’s office preparing for a trial that will probably start in the first half of 2020.
Hironaka says he can prove his client’s innocence. In addition to disputing the four charges against the former executive, the lawyer plans to show that prosecutors worked illegally with government officials and Nissan employees to “drum up allegations of wrongdoing” to remove Ghosn and prevent further integration between Renault and Nissan. They also tampered with and concealed evidence, his lawyers argued in a filing to the Tokyo District Court, seeking dismissal of charges.
The goal of the conspiracy was to oust Ghosn to prevent him from further integrating Nissan and Renault, which threatened the Japanese carmaker’s autonomy, according to Hironaka. Prosecutors relied heavily on some of Nissan’s employees and consultants to trample on Ghosn’s legal rights, he said. They are still investigating in order to to collect more evidence to present at trial because what they have right now isn’t enough to establish Ghosn’s guilt, the lawyer said.
Nobuo Gohara, a former prosecutor, says the defense is right to focus on how authorities decided to bring charges against Ghosn. He also says that prosecutors are still gathering evidence and because of that, the pre-trial proceedings will be dragged out.
“It’s abnormal, this whole process,” said Gohara, who isn’t involved in Ghosn’s defense. “They probably arrested Ghosn for the sake of arresting him. There’s no way they can build a case with just Nissan’s support.”
Prosecutors detained Ghosn multiple times as they handed down indictments. Ghosn has been charged with financial misconduct related to alleged underreporting of compensation. He’s also accused of aggravated breach of trust: one for transactions that allegedly transferred Ghosn’s personal investment losses to Nissan and for transactions in Saudi Arabia that benefited Ghosn; and another related to payments in Oman that allegedly moved money from a dealership into a company controlled by Ghosn in Lebanon.
The former auto executive, who spent 130 days in jail, has denied all charges. Stories about the French-Lebanese-Brazilian, one of the most recognizable foreign executives to ever work in Japan, no longer dominate nightly newscasts. Yet, the Nikkei, Asahi and other newspapers still cover developments, such as a recent report by the Yomiuri of a tax investigation into the former executive. The stories, fueled by leaks, are part of the conspiracy, Ghosn and his lawyers argue.
Although the French government has been careful not to interfere in the legal process by giving strong backing to Ghosn, behind-the-scenes political support is getting in gear. Former French President Nicolas Sarkozy met with Ghosn at the French embassy in Tokyo last month, after getting a green light from President Emmanuel Macron, Journal du Dimanche reported. Sarkozy also voiced his concerns about the Japanese legal system to prime minister Shinzo Abe, the newspaper said. A spokeswoman for Sarkozy didn’t return requests for comment.
Nissan and Greg Kelly, who worked at the automaker’s CEO office, are also defendants in the trial. In the year since Ghosn was detained at Haneda airport after landing in a private jet, the Japanese automaker has seen its own share of turmoil: Ghosn’s loyalist-turned-accuser Hiroto Saikawa was ousted as CEO, profits are at decade lows and Nissan’s relationship with top shareholder Renault was damaged.
Pretrial hearings are being held about once a month at the Tokyo District Court’s 17th Criminal Court Division. Their purpose is to narrow the scope of charges in order to streamline legal proceedings and speed up the trial. Three judges — Kenji Shimozu, Kazunori Fukushima and Kenji Matsushita — will preside over proceedings and render a verdict.
It’s likely that the pretrial process Ghosn is going through will last longer than the actual trial, said Hiroki Sasakura, a professor specializing in criminal procedure at Keio University Law School in Tokyo.
“The pretrial process involves a series of back-and-forths where the prosecutor discloses evidence to the defense, and the defense examines it and can rebut the claims,” he said. “It’s like a game of catch.”