Carlos Ghosn, Fallen Nissan Boss, Flees Japan to Escape ‘Political Persecution’

Carlos Ghosn, the former chairman of Nissan who was facing charges of financial wrongdoing in Japan, has fled the country and taken refuge in Lebanon, where he is considered something of a folk hero, to escape what he called “injustice and political persecution.”

His flight was a dramatic turn in the already unlikely story of the rise and fall of one of the automobile industry’s most prominent executives.

Mr. Ghosn, who has strongly maintained his innocence, was set to stand trial in 2020, and the circumstances under which he left Japan were not immediately clear. He had posted bail of $9 million and was under close watch by the authorities.

Still, he was able to get out of the country and, according to a Lebanese newspaper, Al-Joumhouriya, arrived in Lebanon on a private jet from Turkey. His wife, Carole Ghosn, is with him in Lebanon at a home with armed guards outside, a person with knowledge of the matter said.

“I am now in Lebanon and will no longer be held hostage by a rigged Japanese justice system where guilt is presumed, discrimination is rampant, and basic human rights are denied, in flagrant disregard of Japan’s legal obligations under international law and treaties it is bound to uphold,” Mr. Ghosn said in a brief statement released by his spokeswoman.

“I have not fled justice — I have escaped injustice and political persecution,” the statement said. “I can now finally communicate freely with the media, and look forward to starting next week.”

Junichiro Hironaka, Mr. Ghosn’s lawyer in Japan, said on Tuesday that he had been unaware of Mr. Ghosn’s plans to flee and learned about the departure from the news. Mr. Hironaka said Mr. Ghosn’s legal team had all three of his passports in their possession.

“It would have been difficult for him to do this without the assistance of some large organization,” Mr. Hironaka said at a news conference, adding, “I want to ask him, ‘How could he do this to us?’”

Representatives for Nissan, the Japanese prosecutors and the Lebanese embassies in Tokyo and Washington did not immediately respond to requests for comment. Government offices and most businesses in Japan were closed ahead of New Year’s Day, the most important holiday on the Japanese calendar.

Mr. Ghosn, 65, is a citizen of Lebanon, where he is legally protected from extradition, as well as of France and Brazil. He spent much of his youth in Beirut and enjoys widespread public support there. A billboard in the city expressed solidarity with the imprisoned executive shortly after his arrest in November 2018: “We are all Carlos Ghosn,” it read.

He was accused by the Japanese authorities of underreporting his compensation and shifting personal financial losses to Nissan. The company had also been indicted on charges of improperly reporting Mr. Ghosn’s income — and had said it would cooperate with prosecutors.

Mr. Ghosn had been arrested along with Greg Kelly, a Nissan board member who is a United States citizen. Mr. Kelly had been released from jail a year ago because he was having health problems, and is still in Tokyo, his lawyer said.

“Greg Kelly knew absolutely nothing about this until informed by the media through his counsel and has lived at the foot of the cross in terms of Japanese prosecutors,” Mr. Kelly’s lawyer, Aubrey Harwell, said. “He’s done precisely what has been required of him.”

Mr. Ghosn has been in and out of jail in Japan since his arrest, after which he was initially held for more than 100 days. He was released after he posted bail and agreed to strict conditions: He could not leave Tokyo, and his movements would be monitored. He was arrested again in April, just after he announced plans to hold a news conference and speak publicly about his case.

Prosecutors imposed another condition for his release after the April arrest: Mr. Ghosn was forbidden from communicating with his wife. For seven months, the two did not speak a word to each other.

Mrs. Ghosn has publicly decried what she called the mistreatment of her husband by the Japanese authorities. In an interview with The New York Times after the April arrest, she said the authorities had burst into their apartment and taken her phones, passport, diary and letters she had written to her husband while he was in jail.

Mrs. Ghosn said a woman from the prosecutors’ office followed her into the bathroom. When she stepped out of the shower, she said, the woman handed her a towel. “They didn’t push me around, but they wanted to humiliate me and my husband,” Mrs. Ghosn said. “I was treated like a terrorist,” she said, “like I had a bomb on me.”

The case against Mr. Ghosn has garnered international attention and raised questions about the fairness of Japan’s justice system. Lawyers for the former executive say they have not been allowed to see reams of information that Japanese prosecutors gathered from Nissan to build their case against Mr. Ghosn.

Mr. Ghosn’s defense team had repeatedly spoken out about what they described as a “hostage justice” system, complaining that Japanese courts and prosecutors had put their client at an almost impossible disadvantage as he sought to defend himself.

“I wanted to prove he was innocent,” Mr. Hironaka said on Tuesday. “But when I saw his statement in the press, I thought ‘he doesn’t trust Japan’s courts.’”

Prosecutors, in turn, have argued that they are prevented from sharing some of the material the company gave them because it is “too sensitive.”

Mr. Ghosn’s rise in the auto industry was as storied as his recent fall. He joined the French automaker Renault in 1996 as executive vice president overseeing manufacturing, purchasing, research and development, after spending 18 years at Michelin, the tire maker.

After Renault acquired a large stake in Nissan in 1999, Mr. Ghosn was sent to help turn the Japanese company around — an assignment that was seen as impossible for a foreign executive. Though he closed factories and laid off some 21,000 workers, Mr. Ghosn succeeded in reviving the Japanese carmaker. His efforts in the industry have earned him the nickname “Le Cost Killer.”

He was also the architect of Nissan’s alliance with Renault and Mitsubishi Motors of Japan, a partnership that allowed the two automakers to share the cost of developing new models and buying components together. He became the first person to simultaneously serve as chief executive of two major companies.

But some at Nissan were concerned that he was pushing for a merger, and he had blamed his arrest on “plot and treason” by executives at Nissan.

Since his arrest, he has been removed as chairman of all three companies, and Renault, Nissan and Mitsubishi have struggled to reboot their alliance. Last month, they announced a new structure, appointing a general secretary at the top of their partnership, hoping to accelerate business and make a sharp break from the way Mr. Ghosn ruled over the alliance.

The restructuring comes as Renault, Nissan and Mitsubishi, which together sold more cars than any other company in 2018, struggle to improve profitability in the face of sweeping changes transforming the industry, including the rush to electric vehicles. All three companies have reported a steep decline in sales worldwide, and face fresh challenges as other automakers join forces to generate efficiencies in an increasingly tough global market.

Makiko Inoue and Eimi Yamamitsu contributed reporting.