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.
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 courts system is 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.
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.