He’s witty, “I am used to what you call mission impossible”; he’s sarcastic, “I prefer this prison [Lebanon] to the one I was in before”; and he’s a hopeless romantic, “When I couldn’t see my wife Carole, I couldn’t see a horizon”.
Hard to believe this is the same man accused of funnelling millions in Nissan money for his own private investments. Then again, anyone who allegedly gets away with escaping house arrest in Japan in a music box to Beirut will entice admiration.
In just over 12 months, the former chairman and CEO of Japanese and French car giants Nissan and Renault went from automotive legend to the world’s most wanted fugitive. Carlos Ghosn was arrested in November 2018 on criminal charges including aggravated breach of trust and understating his income – counts he strongly denies. In a lengthy legal saga, he had been detained in solitary confinement for months, before being released on bail, re-arrested, bailed out again and placed under house arrest in Tokyo.
“I have looked forward to this day every single day for more than 400 days since I was brutally taken from my world as I knew it, ripped from my family, my friends”
On New Year’s Day, with the help of former Green Beret commando Michael Taylor, the 65-year-old tycoon fled the country in an epic escape for which details remain shrouded in mystery. The businessman is thought to have been smuggled out of Japan in a large case for audio equipment that was used by a music band hired to play at his dinner. He was then loaded onto a private jet from Osaka to Istanbul and another to his hometown Beirut. According to The Wall Street Journal, the container had holes drilled into its bottom to allow 5.5 foot Ghosn to breathe.
Almost immediately, international police cooperation body Interpol issued a red notice for Ghosn’s arrest – which he said his legal team will fight – while Nissan vowed to take “appropriate legal action” against the automaker’s former chief executive. In a statement, it said: “The internal investigation found incontrovertible evidence of various acts of misconduct by Ghosn, including misstatement of his compensation and misappropriation of the company’s assets for his personal benefit. Nissan will continue to do the right thing by cooperating with judicial and regulatory authorities wherever necessary.”
But as Ghosn addresses a room of invite-only international journalists in his much awaited press conference in Beirut – his first public appearance since his arrest – it is clear that he has not lost his appeal.
The crowd loves him and he loves them back, answering questions in four languages – Arabic, English, French and Portuguese – and getting the most stern of journalists to crack a smile. He even manages to stun a crowd of belligerent photographers into silence as he takes a break from his speech to share an intimate kiss with his wife Carole, who is herself now wanted for arrest in Japan for making “false statements” during an April testimony.
It is no wonder Ghosn’s life was made into a Japanese comic, and that was before his dramatic escape. But don’t hold your breath for a Netflix original. To the disappointment of the crowd, he confirms “there’s no contract” for a biography with the streaming platform. Yet if anyone wanted to, they could easily find enough for a hit film.
“I’m not afraid of what’s coming because what’s coming will be in my advantage… I can do a lot and I want to clear my name and find ways to make sure the truth will come out… For the short term, I’m here”
“I have looked forward to this day every single day for more than 400 days since I was brutally taken from my world as I knew it, ripped from my family, my friends, my communities, from Renault, Nissan and Mitsubishi and the 450,000 women and men who comprise those companies… I did not escape justice. I fled injustice and political persecution,” Ghosn says.
“Having endured more than 400 days of inhuman treatment in a system designed to break me and unwilling to provide me even minimal justice, I was left with no other choice but to protect myself and my family. It was a difficult decision and a risk one only takes resigned to the impossibility of a fair trade. With the strings being pulled and manipulated by those that set on securing a confession or conviction, whose only goal is to save face.”
The French, Brazilian and Lebanese national claims the charges against him are part of a coup by Nissan executives who frowned upon his plans for a merger between the Japanese automaker and its alliance partner Renault.
‘My Pearl Harbor’
He was so unsuspecting of the scheme that he likens it to the 1941 surprise military attack by the Imperial Japanese Navy Air Service on the United States’ naval base at Pearl Harbor in Honolulu, Hawaii, which led to America’s formal entry into World War II the next day.
“What happened in Pearl Harbor? Did you foresee Pearl Harbor happen? Did you notice what happened in Pearl Harbor? So you are telling me how I didn’t notice – and I wasn’t even in my country – that something like this was being cooked against me? I didn’t notice it because it’s true that when it’s planned and confidential and secret, it happens. You’d be surprised and I was surprised,” he says of the alleged coup.
Ghosn clarifies that he did not propose a merger between Nissan and Renault, but rather a holding company for which the two car brands would have separate headquarters, brands, executive committee, but one board and chairman.
“But you can expect me in the next weeks to take some initiative to tell you how I’m going to clear my name, what kind of form I’m going to use to make sure all the evidence comes to the table”
“It was not a full merger… I was trying as much as possible to overcome resistance coming from the Japanese who wanted to be very autonomous and at the same time, from the other side, the willingness of the French to go for a whole merger.
“So I thought a holding company was a very good balance between the wish of a full merger from outside and the desire for autonomy. But, as you know, at the end of the day, one side said why do we need all of this? Let’s get rid of him. Now there’s nothing. There isn’t even an alliance. We went backwards, we didn’t go forward,” he says.
With plunging stocks and decade low profits, Nissan is certainly struggling. Crippled by internal divisions over the loss of its former leader, employee turnover and an aging model lineup, its current CEO Makoto Uchida must find a way to save the automaker that was so famously revived by Ghosn in the 1990s.
Meanwhile, Ghosn must now work on saving himself, as Japanese prosecutors said they will take “whatever measure we have in our power to bring defendant Ghosn to justice” and that his statements during the press conference “failed to justify his acts”.
It doesn’t help his case that only a handful of Japanese reporters are allowed into the room to take part in the two and a half hour long conference, with at least 50 others stranded outside in heavy rains and denied entry. His defence is protecting himself against what he considers to be state-backed propaganda.
“I’m not segregating against Japanese media. I know a lot of [Japanese journalists] are outside but frankly if you’ve been selected, in my opinion, it’s because you’re the only people who are trying to be objective towards this situation while the other people are being sourced at the hand of the prosecutors [which] has no advantage to me.
“I want to speak to people who can analyse the facts. That doesn’t mean I’m running from [Japanese media]. When we finish I’m going to go see them and say hello, I have nothing against you. But I wanted here in the room the BBC, the CNN, the CBS because they are big media who will be objective and factual…” Ghosn says.
Ghosn for PM?
The high profile former executive is not wasting any time in attempting to clear his name, despite being in safe territory in Lebanon, which does not share an extradition agreement with Japan that requires him to be sent back.
“I’m not afraid of what’s coming because what’s coming will be in my advantage… I can do a lot and I want to clear my name and find ways to make sure the truth will come out. So yes now for the short term I’m here and I’m proud to be here because I’m surrounded by friends and people who respect me and are proud of me which I really needed after the ordeal I went through.
“But you can expect me in the next weeks to take some initiative to tell you how I’m going to clear my name, what kind of form I’m going to use to make sure all the evidence comes to the table and that everything else is restored… not be put into a propaganda system [where I seem] an old greedy dictator, but as someone I have been, which is very active in the car industry with everything I have done,” he says.
His 17-year career in Japan may have come to a bitter end, but Ghosn may well find opportunity in Lebanon, which is facing its own economic and political crisis. He insists that he is “not a political man” and has “no political ambitions,” yet states that if asked to “serve my country then yes I am ready”.
It is at that moment that the Lebanese crowd in the room erupts into applause. Perhaps Ghosn is the man Lebanon’s been waiting for.
Why Lebanese are spending big to salvage savings
Companies are closing and restaurants are half empty but in the gloom of Lebanon’s worst economic crisis in decades, luxury jewellers, supercar dealerships and art galleries are doing brisk business.
Worried that their life savings might vanish with a collapse of the banking sector, some Lebanese are syphoning cash from their accounts and buying the most expensive goods they can get their hands on.
Banks have slapped restrictions on withdrawals and overseas transfers, leading some depositors to use cashier’s checks to spend savings they fear would otherwise be depleted by a haircut or a devaluation.
“Our sales have trebled since November,” said Karl Kenaan, a Beirut-based real estate broker. “There’s a huge demand.”
Companies encouraging Lebanese to offload their savings by investing in property have launched advertising campaigns on billboards and on social media.
“People want to diversify their investments as a precaution against the threat that hovers above the banking sector and the national currency,” Kenaan said.
To be on the safe side, many choose to buy flats and houses outside of Lebanon for fear the property market could collapse too.
“Secure your savings with a property investment in Greece you can pay for in Lebanon,” reads a Facebook ad for a real estate agency.
The Lebanese pound has been officially pegged to the dollar since 1997 but it has lost a third of its value on the parallel market recently.
With the prospect that Lebanon might restructure or default on its debt after years of economic mismanagement and corruption, many Lebanese fear that an official devaluation of the pound will slash their savings.
The loss of confidence in a banking sector that was once a source of national pride is such that deposits in Lebanon have slumped by $12 billion over the first 11 months of 2019.
For years, deposits had been fuelled by the influx of money from Lebanon’s vast diaspora and Gulf residents who were attracted by high interest rates.
These rates, however, have decreased significantly since December, further dissuading depositors abroad and at home from putting their money in the bank.
Despite the controls slapped by banks to prevent capital flight, Lebanese depositors can still ask for cashier’s checks and they are using them to buy goods they feel will not depreciate or can be easily resold abroad.
“More and more clients are buying gold coins, chains, bracelets and necklaces, only for their monetary value,” said one jeweller whose business has 14 branches nationwide.
One car dealer who also asked not to be identified said Lamborghinis and Bentleys sometimes fetching $400,000 were still in demand “even as auto sales are generally plummeting”.
“Sure, these cars gradually lose some of their value but for many buyers it’s a case of trying not to lose everything,” he said.
Artworks, a traditional safe investment in times of crisis, are being snapped in Beirut’s edgy galleries.
“Lately I’ve had visits from people I’ve never seen before in my gallery,” one owner said. “They basically want to see the largest paintings, buy the most expensive pieces.”
Those who are unsure what to spend their money on tend to pull as much cash as possible from the bank and keep it at home.
According to the banking authorities, $3 billion have been withdrawn from banks and hoarded at home since September, triggering a rush on safes.
“Our sales have gone up 50 percent,” said Khalil Chehab, a retailer who specialises in safes and lock boxes.
“Banks used to be our main clients before the crisis broke out, now it’s their customers who are coming to us,” he said, adding that some buyers were ready to spend up to $20,000 on high-end safes.
“People are no longer looking for any kind of profit. They just want to save their money, at any price.”
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Illegal state hires in Lebanon, reached number of 15,000: MPs
Roughly 15,000 state employees may have been hired illegally, MPs announced Wednesday — the largest, most startling number yet in a burgeoning scandal over government hiring. After a hearing of Parliament’s Finance and Budget Committee Wednesday, committee chair MP Ibrahim Kanaan announced the latest figures. George Attieh, head of the Central Inspection Bureau, which investigated…
Roughly 15,000 state employees may have been hired illegally, MPs announced Wednesday — the largest, most startling number yet in a burgeoning scandal over government hiring. After a hearing of Parliament’s Finance and Budget Committee Wednesday, committee chair MP Ibrahim Kanaan announced the latest figures.
George Attieh, head of the Central Inspection Bureau, which investigated the hiring, told The Daily Star that the latter figure represented roughly 90 percent of civilian employees.
Attieh said the figures suggested more than 10 percent of the Lebanese public sector had been hired outside of legal norms.
Wednesday’s unexpected discovery on illegal hiring was made after the Finance and Budget Committee set out to investigate the employment of some 5,000 people during a hiring freeze that began in August 2017 .
The committee is currently examining two reports — one from the CIB, and another from the Civil Service Board.
The former refers to illegal hires made after the August 2017 freeze.