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Defiant car magnate Ghosn hits back against Japanese 'plot'

BEIRUT (AFP) -- Fugitive auto tycoon Carlos Ghosn on Wednesday accused Nissan and Japanese prosecutors of plotting against him as he staged an impassioned defence at his first public appearance since fleeing the country.

In a combative news conference in Beirut, the former Renault-Nissan boss -- one of the world's most high-profile corporate executives -- slammed the financial misconduct charges he faced in Japan as "baseless".

Late on Wednesday, a Lebanese prosecutor summoned Ghosn for questioning on Thursday, principally on the basis of an Interpol "red notice".

Ghosn would also be asked to respond to a report submitted by Lebanese lawyers detailing his travel to neighbouring Israel as head of Renault-Nissan, the National News Agency said. Lebanon is still technically at war with Israel.

"The collusion between Nissan and prosecutors is everywhere," Ghosn told a large crowd of journalists at an appearance that lasted more than two hours during which he fielded questions in English, French, Arabic and Portuguese.

Carlos Ghosn (AP-Yonhap)
Carlos Ghosn (AP-Yonhap)

"There was no way I was going to be treated fairly ... this was not about justice. I felt I was a hostage of the country that I have served for 17 years," he said.

Ghosn accused prosecutors and Nissan, one of Japan's biggest carmakers, of "systematic leaking of false information" and "intentional withholding" of important facts related to the case.

That meant he was "presumed guilty before the eyes of the world and subject to a system whose only objective is to coerce confessions, secure guilty pleas," he added.

'Totally unacceptable'

Japanese prosecutors quickly hit back, slamming Ghosn's claims as "categorically false".

"Ghosn's allegations completely ignore his own conduct, and his one-sided criticism of the Japanese justice system is totally unacceptable," the Tokyo prosecutor's office said in a statement.

The car magnate -- for years venerated in Japan for turning around once-ailing Nissan -- fled while awaiting trial on charges including allegedly under-reporting his compensation to the tune of $85 million.

Ghosn said he had "no choice" but to jump bail, adding he was told by his lawyers he would have to wait five years for a verdict.

He said he had been "ripped" from friends and family when detained.

In a comment that risked causing further upset in Japan, he suggested his arrest had been as unexpected as the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbour in 1941.

"I didn't suspect anything ... Did you see Pearl Harbour happening?"

Japanese outrage

The 65-year-old businessman's shock arrival in his native Lebanon last month was the latest twist in a story worthy of a Hollywood plot.

Ghosn's bail jump prompted outrage from the Japanese government, which has called his escape "unjustifiable", as well as from Nissan which labelled the getaway "extremely regrettable".

Many were hoping Ghosn would disclose details of his audacious flight from Japan to Beirut via Istanbul.

But Ghosn told reporters he was "not here to talk" about how he fled Japan.

According to Japanese media, Ghosn slipped out of his house in Tokyo, boarded a bullet train to Osaka and then a private jet to Istanbul, evading customs by hiding in a box, before reaching Beirut on December 30.

Giving credence to that dramatic account, police in Istanbul released a photograph on Wednesday of a box in which Ghosn allegedly concealed himself.

Ghosn argues the charges against him stem from a "coup" inside Nissan by disgruntled executives and Japanese officials who feared his plans to more closely integrate the car giant with its alliance partner, French firm Renault.

Asked how high the alleged conspiracy went, Ghosn said he did not believe Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was involved.

Nissan has continued to insist it has "incontrovertible evidence of various acts of misconduct by Ghosn".

But the fallen tycoon sought to portray himself as an innocent victim of an ungrateful company that he helped to prosper.

He said that Nissan's stock market value had fallen by $40 million a day since his arrest, while that of Renault had slumped by 20 million euros daily.

In one declaration that raised eyebrows, he denied having quit as chief executive of Renault, contradicting an announcement that came from France's economy minister in January 2019.

"They said that I resigned from Renault. It's wrong," Ghosn said.

'Profound hopelessness'

Ghosn's high-profile arrest and his long detention -- 130 days in total -- under severe conditions were widely considered draconian compared with the West.

He said he was held in solitary confinement in a "tiny cell" that was "light day and night".

"The feeling of hopelessness was profound," he said, denouncing a Japanese justice system that he said "was designed to break my spirit".

In contrast, "Lebanese authorities never lost their faith. For a small country they have a big soul," he said.

Japanese prosecutors are also seeking to arrest Ghosn's wife Carole, alleging she "made false statements" during April testimony to the Tokyo district court.

As Japan grapples with the fallout from the embarrassing security lapse, prosecutors on Wednesday attempted to raid the offices of one of Ghosn's lawyers, Junichiro Hironaka, to seize computers.

However, the lawyers refused them access, citing "attorney-client confidentiality".

Lebanon, which has no extradition agreement with Japan, has said Ghosn entered the country legally in possession of a French passport and a Lebanese identification card.

The tycoon holds Brazilian, French and Lebanese nationalities. (AFP)