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Ghosn protests innocence at high-profile court hearing

AFP
Former Nissan boss Carlos Ghosn said Tuesday he had been "wrongly accused and unfairly detained" at a high-profile court hearing in Japan.
AFP
AFP

This courtroom sketch illustrated by Masato Yamashita depicts former Nissan chairman Carlos Ghosn attending his hearing at the Tokyo district court on January 8, 2019.

Former Nissan boss Carlos Ghosn said Tuesday he had been "wrongly accused and unfairly detained" at a high-profile court hearing in Japan, his first appearance since his arrest in November rocked the business world.

In a statement prepared for the hearing and issued by a spokesperson, Ghosn was expected to conclude his remarks by saying: "Your Honour, I am innocent of the accusations made against me."

The 64-year-old auto titan said he had "always acted with integrity" and had "never been accused of any wrongdoing" in his career spanning several decades, during which he is credited with saving the struggling Japanese manufacturer.

"I have been wrongly accused and unfairly detained based on meritless and unsubstantiated accusations," concluded the executive at a hearing at the Tokyo District Court, according to the statement.

Making his first appearance in seven weeks, the once-revered boss appeared handcuffed with a rope around his waist and wearing plastic slippers. He wore a dark suit without a tie. His hair was greying at the roots and he looked thinner than in recent pictures.

In an indication of the interest the case has sparked in Japan, more than 1,000 people waited outside the court from the early hours in the hope of getting one of just 14 tickets for the public gallery.

The purpose of the hearing was for the court to explain the reasons for Ghosn's continued detention on suspicion of financial misconduct.

Presiding Judge Yuichi Tada read out the charges against Ghosn and said he was being detained because he was a flight risk and there was a possibility he would conceal evidence.

It is considered extremely unlikely the hearing would result in a change to Ghosn's detention but the case has repeatedly shown the ability to surprise, from the moment prosecutors stormed the tycoon's private jet at a Tokyo airport on November 19, with the twists and turns gripping Japan and the business world.

Ghosn faces a host of allegations of financial impropriety.

Prosecutors have formally charged him over suspicions he under-declared some 5 billion yen (US$44 million) from his salary in documents to investors over five fiscal years from 2010 — apparently to avoid accusations he was paid too much.

Authorities also suspect he continued this scheme over the next three tax years, seeking to defer another four billion yen of his salary until after retirement.

A third, more complex, accusation is that he sought to shift personal foreign exchange losses onto Nissan's books and then paid a business contact from Saudi Arabia some US$14.7 million — supposedly from company funds — who allegedly stumped up collateral for him.

AFP

Judge Yuichi Tada (top C) and spectators sit in a courtroom ahead of a court hearing on the case of former Nissan chairman Carlos Ghosn at the Tokyo District Court in Tokyo on January 8, 2019. 

'Vigorous defense'

Ghosn has not been formally charged over the latter two allegations and is preparing to defend himself "vigorously" in court, according to his son Anthony in an interview with French weekly Journal du Dimanche.

"For the first time, he will be able to explain all the charges against him and give his version and I think everyone will be quite surprised to hear his version of the story," the 24-year-old was quoted as saying.

Anthony, who has not spoken to his father, has said Ghosn would be released if he signed a confession.

The high-profile Ghosn case has thrown the spotlight on the Japanese legal system, which has been criticised in some quarters for the practice of extending the custody of suspects without formal charges being pressed.

On December 31, the court again extended his detention until January 11, at which point prosecutors could rearrest him to question him over other allegations or could free him on bail.

'Family the priority'

Ghosn is a towering figure in the auto industry and is credited with turning around a struggling Nissan — also giving him a high profile rare for foreign executives in Japan.

He forged an unlikely three-way alliance between Mitsubishi Motors, Renault and Nissan that now outsells any other rival group.

But his arrest has laid bare divisions in the tie-up. Nissan and Mitsubishi Motors promptly removed him as chairman whereas the French firm has kept him on while he fights the allegations.

In an interview with AFP on the eve of the hearing, current Nissan CEO Hiroto Saikawa insisted: "I don't think it's in danger at all."

However, Flavien Neuvy, auto analyst from Paris-based Cetelem, said it was impossible to predict how the affair would hit the grouping.

"Maybe we have hit the limits of this alliance as it was conceived at the beginning," he told AFP.

Meanwhile, Ghosn's son Anthony painted a picture of a devoted family man for whom "money is only a way to help those he loves, not an end in itself."

"He takes his role as a father even more seriously than his role as head of a major company. For him, family is always the priority."

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