Lebanon issues travel ban for fugitive Ghosn

Former Nissan boss banned from leaving Lebanon after questioning by prosecutor in Beirut over financial misconduct charges in Japan, as well as a separate complaint over his 2006 visit to Israel.

BEIRUT - Lebanon banned former auto tycoon Carlos Ghosn from travelling on Thursday after questioning him over an Interpol "red notice" of charges of financial misconduct in Japan, judicial sources said.

This came after the former Nissan boss was questioned under the supervision of the prosecutor in Beirut, a judicial source said, after he was summoned over the warrant issued by Japan.

Ghosn, 65, fled Japan to Lebanon, his childhood home, last month as he was awaiting trial on charges of under-reporting his compensation to the tune of $85 million, as well as breach of trust and misappropriation of company funds, all of which he denies.

His shock arrival in Beirut was the latest twist in a story worthy of a Hollywood plot, prompting outrage from the Japanese government as well as from Nissan.

Ghosn was being questioned at the Justice Palace in Beirut in front of an official in the department of criminal investigations, General Maurice Abu Zidan, and under the supervision of the prosecutor, the judicial source and the state news agency said.

Lebanon's judiciary received the "red notice" from Interpol last week urging Ghosn's arrest. A "red notice" is a request to police across the world to provisionally arrest a person pending extradition, surrender or similar legal action. It is not an arrest warrant.

Lebanese authorities say Ghosn entered the country on a valid passport, casting doubt on the possibility they would hand him over to Japan.

The Brazilian-born Ghosn says that he escaped to Lebanon to clear his name and was ready to stand trial anywhere he could get a fair hearing. During a press conference on Wednesday, he said he was ready to stay for a long time in Lebanon, which does not allow the extradition of its nationals, and a source close to the 65-year-old has said his legal team is pushing for him to be tried in the country.

In addition to the Interpol warrant, Ghosn is being questioned over a formal legal complaint filed against him by a group of Lebanese lawyers who accuse him of "normalisation" with Israel over a visit he made there in 2008, despite a ban on Lebanese visiting the Zionist state.

Ghosn said on Wednesday he had made the trip as a French citizen and an executive of Renault to sign a contract with a state-backed Israeli firm to sell electric vehicles, and had been obliged to go because the board had requested it.

"I went as the head of Renault," he said.

"I went as a Frenchman because of a contract between Renault and an Israeli company," said Ghosn, who holds French, Lebanese and Brazilian nationalities.

He apologised for the trip and said he had not meant to hurt the people of Lebanon, which deems Israel an enemy state.

During the visit, Ghosn met Israel's former prime minister Ehud Olmert, who was premier at the time of the 2006 war between Israel and the Iranian-backed Lebanese group Hezbollah.

Nearly 1,200 Lebanese, mostly civilians, died in the 2006 war and 158 people died in Israel, mostly soldiers. Lebanon and Israel are still technically at war.

Japanese justice on trial

At his first public appearance since his escape to Lebanon, Ghosn slammed Japan's judicial system and said he had been forced to flee because he would not get a fair trial.

"There was no way I was going to be treated fairly... this was not about justice," he told reporters during his press conference on Wednesday, responding to questions in English, Arabic, French and Portuguese.

Ghosn said 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."

Japan's Justice Minister Masako Mori has since come under fire for her response to Ghosn's assertion that Japan's legal system is focused more on securing convictions than determining the truth. She said that Ghosn should return to Japan and "prove his innocence" in court.

Japan's legal system has come under the spotlight as Ghosn pursues a vigorous self-defence, slamming everything from the country's sky-high conviction rate to the conditions he faced during 130 days of pre-trial detention. 

He and his legal team referred to that extended period of detention as "hostage justice", arguing the prosecutors were trying to break his will and force him to confess to the financial misconduct charges.

Japan's legal system allows for long periods of detention before a trial begins, and critics at home and abroad have argued that prosecutors hold suspects before indicting them as a tool to extract confessions.

Prosecutors fought hard to keep Ghosn behind bars, arguing that he could flee if released because of his extensive financial means and international contacts.

"Ghosn was deemed a high flight risk, which is obvious from the fact that he actually fled and illegally departed the country," prosecutors said after the tycoon's press conference.

Ghosn slammed the conditions he experienced at the Tokyo Detention House in Kosuge, saying he was interrogated around the clock without his lawyer, held in a cell where the lights never went out and only allowed to shower twice a week.

Japanese officials defend the rules governing interrogations, saying questioning is videotaped and suspects can refuse to answer questions. They say those in detention also have the right to meet their lawyers outside of interrogations.

The Justice Minister earlier Thursday said Ghosn's accusations were "baseless", urging him to return and make his case in court.

"If defendant Ghosn has anything to say on his criminal case, he should make his argument in a Japanese court and present concrete evidence," Mori said.

"If he claims innocence, he should face a trial under the justice system in Japan, where he was doing business, and he should submit evidence to prove his claims," she said.

99% conviction rate

When it comes to convictions, Japanese prosecutors boast a success rate that their peers around the world might consider enviable.

They win more than 99 percent of the cases they bring to trial, and Ghosn cited this astonishing rate as evidence that he would not get a fair hearing.

"I was facing a system where the conviction rate is 99.4 percent," he said, claiming that the rate for foreigners was likely even higher.

Japan does not dispute that its prosecutors win almost all of the cases they bring to trial, but says this is simply evidence that they do not start legal action lightly.

Prosecutors "only indict a suspect where there is a high likelihood of a court's conviction based on sufficient evidence, so as to avoid an innocent person (having) to suffer," Mori said in response to Ghosn's criticism.

"It is wrong to argue that a person cannot obtain a fair judgement because of the high conviction rate in Japan."

When Ghosn finally won bail for a second time, his release came with strict conditions: surveillance of his home, access to the internet at his lawyer's office only, and restrictions on his contact with his wife Carole.

Prosecutors argued that she was party to one of the charges and the couple could tamper with evidence. Ghosn had to get court permission before contacting her via video conference, which he was able to do just twice.

And they said the strict rules were necessary to prevent him from fleeing the country.

Ghosn slammed the conditions as vindicative, saying prosecutors specifically blocked access to Carole to "break" him and that his decision to flee was motivated in large part by the rule.

"Maybe for a lot of people it would have been not a punishment not to see their wife, but for me it was," he joked.

Japan has since issued an arrest warrant for Carole Ghosn for alleged perjury, accusing her of lying when she claimed not to know, or to have met, people connected to a company that received payments from Nissan Motor, part of which it subsequently transferred to a firm owned by Ghosn. Ghosn has dismissed those charges against his wife as "pathetic".