Report

Big in Japan, ‘Le Cost Killer’ Comes Home

Carlos Ghosn’s mysterious return to Beirut is met with mixed reactions from a country in protest and peril.

Then-Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn speaks during the beginning of the New York International Auto Show's press day in New York.
Then-Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn speaks during the beginning of the New York International Auto Show's press day in New York on March 23, 2016. Bryan Thomas/Getty Images

BEIRUT—In a two-hour press conference here on Wednesday, Carlos Ghosn, the former Nissan CEO who escaped house arrest in Japan, reiterated his innocence, and outlined what he says is a conspiracy against him by his former employer and the Japanese judiciary.

But if the 100-odd journalists who jostled for a place at the press conference came to hear details of his Houdini-esque escape from Japan via Turkey, they were disappointed.

Instead, Ghosn gave an impassioned presentation including documents he said prove his innocence and a dramatic recount of his surprise arrest in a Tokyo airport in November 2018, which he compared to the Japanese surprise attack on the United States in 1941, which caught the U.S. Navy at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, with its guard down.

“Some people ask me … you didn’t suspect this?” Ghosn said. “What happened in Pearl Harbor?”

Ghosn has been well-received by Lebanon’s political elite, even reportedly meeting with the country’s President Michel Aoun shortly after his shock arrival in Beirut on Dec. 30. But his reception among regular Lebanese has been less all-embracing, with some questioning whether a country embroiled in protests against an entrenched political elite and corruption needs a man accused of stealing millions of dollars.

After Ghosn was first arrested, accused of under-reporting his income and siphoning off money from Nissan, brightly lit billboards went up in Beirut with his face and the slogan “We Are All Carlos Ghosn.” Many in the country where Ghosn spent much of his childhood see him as a success story, becoming one of the world’s top CEOs known for lifting companies out of peril and into profits.“If there is one country that’s stood by me through this difficult time, it’s Lebanon.”

“Today, I am proud to be Lebanese,” he said to a round of applause at the press conference. “If there is one country that’s stood by me through this difficult time, it’s Lebanon.” Ghosn also has Brazilian and French nationalities, the latter of which he is thought to have used to escape from house arrest in Japan to Lebanon—all his other passports had been taken from him, but he held on to one French passport in a locked case.

Ghosn’s arrival in Lebanon, which faces a looming economic and energy crisis, has sparked some calls for him to play a role in salvaging the country. With devastating debt, a wobbly currency, and daily blackouts, Lebanon seems headed for an economic implosion. Many see the man who is sometimes called “Le Cost Killer” as a potential fixer of the economy which—on top of corruption—suffers from an inefficient bureaucracy and government mismanagement at all levels.

Walid Jumblatt, a leader of the country’s Druze sect, took to Twitter to suggest that Ghosn could help save the country.

“I propose appointing him as a minister of energy to replace the mafia in control that have caused this huge deficit and reject any reform,” Jumblatt wrote. “Carlos Ghosn built an empire—perhaps we can benefit from his expertise.”

“I would vote for him,” said Ziko Khoury, who owns a stationary shop up the street from one of Ghosn’s Beirut residences. “He’s a good businessman. He loves Lebanon. He should become a minister.”

Asked at Wednesday’s press conference if he had a role to play in solving Lebanon’s problems, Ghosn gave an astute answer.

‘”I am not a politician nor have a political ambition,” he said, “but if I were asked to put my expertise to serve the country, I am ready.’”

Some Lebanese, like Khoury, think the charges against Ghosn are trumped up. “I don’t understand the big deal,” said Khoury, standing in his shop, lit by electric generator amid one of the daily power cuts. “Everyone does this with their taxes. They don’t put you in jail.”

But after months of anti-government protests demanding that the corrupt political class that has ruled since the end of Lebanon’s civil war step down, his case is being scrutinized online and in the streets in a way it wasn’t when he was first detained.

“We already have a surplus of corrupt people and traitors. You want us to start importing them from outside?” one Lebanese Twitter user responded to Jumblatt.

At a protest earlier this week, demonstrators adapted a chant for Ghosn, usually reserved for the country’s politicians and governor of the central bank: “Thief, thief, Carlos Ghosn, he’s a thief.”

Taxes aren’t Ghosn’s only problem. He also took a trip to Israel in 2008, where he met the Israeli president and then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who led Israel through the 2006 war with Hezbollah—which left around 1,200 Lebanese dead. Visiting Israel is illegal for Lebanese citizens, let alone meeting the prime minister. While a pair of Lebanese lawyers have brought a case against him for the visit, Lebanon’s top leaders seem sanguine; not even Hezbollah has brought up Ghosn’s very public digression in the enemy state.Demonstrators adapted a chant for Ghosn, usually reserved for the country’s politicians and governor of the central bank.

Ghosn is hopeful that his flight to Lebanon will bring him some legal relief. On Thursday, he was summoned for investigation by Lebanon’s state prosecutor, a questioning that lasted barely longer than his press conference. Lebanon has asked Japan for files pertaining to the charges against Ghosn, but it has been clear it has no plans to extradite him, despite an Interpol Red Notice looking for his arrest.

Lebanon, which says Ghosn entered the country legally on a French passport, put a travel ban on him Thursday. Some have joked it seems more like confirmation of his safety here than a restriction.

Ghosn says he escaped persecution, not justice, in Japan. He says he was held in solitary confinement, questioned for hours without his lawyer present, and prevented from even speaking to his wife, Carole Ghosn, whom he embraced tightly at the press conference in Beirut. She is now also facing charges in Japan.

Ghosn said he’s ready to stand trial anywhere he could get a fair hearing, repeatedly referring to Japan’s high conviction rate: “99.4 percent!” He has pledged to cooperate with the Lebanese judiciary.

“I’m much more comfortable with the Lebanese judicial system than I was with the Japanese system,” he said in an interview with Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation International this week.

And that’s just the problem for many Lebanese fed up with corrupt elites. Lack of independence in the judiciary is one of the key criticisms of the protest movement. Legal rights groups say the system is heavily influenced by political and financial elites—the very people who seem to be on Ghosn’s side.

“Of course you’re going to be more comfortable here,” tweeted another Lebanese user, “They are going to make this so easy for you.”

Rebecca Collard is a broadcast journalist and writer covering the Middle East.

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