London CNN Business  — 

Carlos Ghosn was once feted in Japan as a titan of the auto industry, the charismatic boss of emblematic automakers Nissan and Mitsubishi Motors. If he wasn’t one of the country’s most recognizable faces then, he certainly became one when he was spectacularly fired after being arrested in November 2018 on suspicion of financial misconduct.

The terms of his 1.5 billion yen bail (that’s $13.8 million) required that he remain in Japan in advance of his trial, set for 2020. Deemed a flight risk, Ghosn’s three passports were confiscated, held by his defense team in order that he could not leave the country. Even then, he was placed under strict surveillance and he was subject to restrictions on his use of phones and computers.

If he couldn’t leave his Tokyo apartment to buy a carton of milk without someone knowing about it, how on earth did he just manage to flee the country?

Carlos Ghosn at the New York International Auto Show in 2016.

In the absence of hard facts, there has been plenty of speculation. Among the more outlandish theories to be raised in Lebanese media was that he was smuggled out in a box designed for musical instruments, after a private performance at his home by a Gregorian music ensemble.

Or, were the circumstances of his escape more prosaic, and did he give Japan the slip with the aid of a fake passport, as the French news journal Les Echos reported? (One of the three passports held by Ghosn was French.)

Whatever the truth – and Ghosn himself did not elaborate in a statement attacking the “rigged Japanese justice system” – such an escape would have required elaborate planning, and not inconsiderable resources. Junichiro Hironaka, the lawyer who represents Ghosn, said he must have had the help of a “large organization” to have fled.

What seems certain is that, somehow or other, he evaded surveillance in Tokyo. Ghosn certainly has form for disguising himself: When he left jail after being freed on bail, he left court dressed as a maintenance worker, in an apparent effort to evade the gathered media. (It wasn’t successful.)

Former Nissan chairman Carlos Ghosn, wearing a  blue cap and a face mask, when he was released on bail.

Then comes the question of how he left Japan. The Wall Street Journal said Ghosn made it to Lebanon via Turkey, a version of events corroborated by French outlet Les Echos, among others. This was backed up by data from flight tracker Flightradar24, which shows a private jet flying from Osaka, Japan, to Istanbul, Turkey, and then another continuing to Lebanon at the time Ghosn is said to have arrived in the country.

Whatever the manner of his departure from Japan, his arrival in Lebanon – where he grew up after his family moved from Brazil – appeared a great deal more conventional.

Ghosn arrived in Beirut as the day broke on Monday, apparently landing from Turkey without so much as a raised Lebanese eyebrow. “Carlos Ghosn entered Lebanon at dawn yesterday legally,” Lebanon’s ministry of foreign affairs said in a statement reported by the country’s national news agency. “The circumstances surrounding his departure from Japan and entry into Beirut are unknown and all chatter about it is a private matter [pertaining to Ghosn],” the statement said.

Members of the press wait outside a property beloging to Carlos Ghosn in Beirut.

Surprise and anger in Japan

In Japan, meanwhile, there was consternation. Hironaka told reporters Tuesday that his client’s flight from Japan was a “complete surprise.”

“We are puzzled and shocked,” he said, explaining that Ghosn didn’t have his passports and “could not possibly use them.”

Masahisa Sato, a lawmaker with Shinzo Abe’s ruling Liberal Democrat Party (LDP), said Ghosn had plainly jumped bail. “If this is true, it was not ‘departing the country,’ it was an illegal departure and an escape, and this itself is a crime,” he said, according to AFP.

“Was there help extended by an unnamed country? It is also a serious problem that Japan’s system allowed an illegal departure so easily,” said Sato, a former minister of state for foreign affairs.

There was fury in France, too, where Ghosn had engineered a complex and sometimes uneasy alliance between Nissan, Mitsubishi and the French automaker Renault. The French government was “very surprised” that Ghosn had left Japan, economy secretary Agnès Pannier-Runacher told France Inter radio. Ghosn is “not above the law,” she said, adding that “if a foreign citizen fled French justice we would be really angry.”

Safe in Beirut, Ghosn released a statement, saying that he had “not fled justice – I have escaped injustice and political persecution.” He’s unlikely to be forced to return: Lebanon does not have an extradition treaty with Japan. In any case, Lebanon has plenty of problems of its own – the country is in the throes of a political and economic meltdown, and entering into a complex extradition process is likely to be low down on its list of priorities.

In his statement, Ghosn said he looked forward to communicating “freely” with journalists starting next week.

Perhaps he might elaborate on how pulled off the escape of the decade.