Carlos Ghosn is in a far nicer prison today. The former head of the Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi Alliance and now-wanted fugitive fled the Japanese judicial system for the safety of Lebanon in a dramatic made-for-movies escape. He left a prison system condemned internationally for violating human rights and will not return to Japan; Lebanon does not extradite its citizens.
While Ghosn is reunited with his wife at their Lebanon home, he cannot travel: A Red Notice issued by Interpol for his extradition at Japan’s request makes him a prisoner within the country. Still, the situation is markedly better than the alternative for the man who led one of the world’s largest automotive conglomerates until his surprise arrest on November 19, 2018, for under-reporting income.
In a video interview with MotorTrend from his home in Beirut, Ghosn says he is physically fine after his ordeal, despite his isolation during imprisonment in a cell with a straw mat and rolled up mattress. He says he was required to sit on the floor for hours, creating numb legs and a sore back, was granted 30 minutes of fresh air on weekdays, and underwent lengthy daily interrogations without legal representation. “I don’t wish my worst enemies to go through the system,” he says, calling it a joke, masquerade, and a show.
In his new book, Broken Alliances (one of three books he is involved in), Ghosn says he hit bottom mentally after a month in a place where suicide is not an option. “Everything is done to lead you to despair. But you’re prevented from committing the act,” he writes.
Today he says he realizes how rich his life was after losing everything: freedom, family, employment, human rights. When a small portion is restored, you are happier than you were with everything before. Instead of bitterness, he feels immense gratitude for simple things like waking in the morning and having coffee with his wife or calling his children.
Ghosn was out on bail and under house arrest when he escaped in December 2019. “I knew if I was going to stay in Japan, I would die there,” he says. “They would never let me go … it was the 1 percent chance to be alive again, against the 99 percent chance that if you stay, you’re going to die a dog’s death.”
Being famous made Ghosn easily recognizable; he was always followed, and there were cameras everywhere. His escape was timed for December, when temporary workers fill many positions. He was smuggled in a music equipment box on a private plane to Turkey, where he boarded a flight to Lebanon. “I made all the decisions carefully,” he says. “I thought I would be successful.”
Escape in Japan is rare; Ghosn is unaware of a successful plan before his. That fact apparently worked in his favor, as Japanese officials were extremely cautious in every other aspect of his case but “never considered I could get out of Japan,” he says. “For them it was impossible. And that was my [salvation].”
The one reason to remain in prison would have been to have his day in court and expose a biased judicial system he says colluded with Nissan to arrest and charge him on minor and questionable financial charges.
Prosecutors made it clear: If he talked to the press, they would bring new charges against him. They were true to their word. When he was released briefly on bail in April 2018, he scheduled a press conference for a week later. It never happened. A week later he was back in prison facing new charges of misappropriating Nissan funds.
Ghosn is using books—including one co-written with his wife, Carole, about their “year in hell”—as well as interviews, a documentary, a TV series, and speaking engagements to tell his side of the story after being muzzled and painted as a greedy dictator. Once safe in Lebanon, “My most urgent task was to say everything I have on my heart, and I was not able to express,” he says. “I’ve been a victim of a 13-month massive character assassination.”
Some within the automotive industry see Ghosn as a victim of a coup. Nissan was happy to form a partnership with Renault in 1999 when it was in dire financial straits. Under Ghosn, it was nursed back to health, and he was a hero in Japan. But according to multiple reports, with Nissan’s return to profitability, Japanese nationals wanted greater independence and a rebalancing of control within the Alliance at a time when Renault wanted to cement the terms of its own control.
Why would Nissan not simply fire or retire the then-64-year-old executive rather than executing the arrest and smear campaign against him? Ghosn claims it’s because Nissan’s board would have to explain to the Japanese public that he, a business role model with a cult-like following, was in fact a greedy villain. “So, they came to the conclusion the only way they can do something is just knock me completely down, neutralizing me totally so that I couldn’t fight back,” he says.
At the time of his escape, Ghosn faced four charges that, if he were found guilty, would carry a sentence of as much as 10 years in prison, and the defendant today remains convinced prosecutors would have found more, stretching his prison time to as many as 20 years, at which point he would be 85 years old.
Ghosn’s lawyers have repeatedly requested Japan allow him to be tried in Lebanon—ending his ordeal if he is acquitted—but there has been no response. “They want to make me a prisoner for life by refusing to send the file,” he says. His legal team also wants Interpol to drop its Red Notice, arguing it is a political matter that does not require the agency’s involvement. The process could take years, and Ghosn wants to travel to Brazil to visit his ailing mother.
Ghosn is first to admit he had few allies. He was not a native of Japan or France, and he “didn’t spend time building relationships or friends.” Running three companies, he says he had no time to play politics or attend functions, official trips, or social engagements, so he had no currency with government or business.
His largest regret: declining the offer to be General Motors’ CEO in 2009. Ghosn turned it down because he felt an obligation to see Renault and Nissan through the recession that forced GM and Chrysler to declare bankruptcy. “It was the biggest mistake of my life,” he says.
Ghosn now watches from the sidelines as the Alliance sputters. Many non-Japanese executives were fired or left after his arrest, and the Alliance is falling behind in areas it once led. Nissan began building the electric Leaf in 2010; today everyone has ambitious EV rollout plans, and despite its head start, Nissan is not leading the pack. “The Alliance today is a zombie,” Ghosn says. “They’re not willing to work together because the trust factor has disappeared … everybody is lying to everyone.” He predicts the Alliance will continue to unravel and eventually dissolve.
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