Carlos Ghosn, who was banned from travelling overseas under his bail conditions, insisted he had not “fled justice” but had “escaped injustice and political persecution”.
The 65-year-old’s abrupt departure will raise urgent questions about how one of the world’s most-recognised executives was able to leave Japan months before a high-profile court case.
It is the latest dramatic twist in a saga that has shaken the global automotive industry, jeopardised the alliance between Nissan and its top shareholder Renault, and cast a harsh light on the Japanese judicial system.
In a brief statement issued on Tuesday, Mr Ghosn said: “I am now in Lebanon and will no longer be held hostage by a rigged Japanese justice system where guilt is presumed, discrimination is rampant, and basic human rights are denied.
“I have not fled justice – I have escaped injustice and political persecution. I can now finally communicate freely with the media, and look forward to starting next week.”
Neither Mr Ghosn’s lawyer nor a spokesperson for the Tokyo prosecutor’s office had any comment when contacted about his whereabouts.
A Nissan spokesperson declined to comment.
According to state media, Lebanon's General Security Directorate intelligence agency said Mr Ghosn entered the country legally and no legal measures would be taken against him.
Lebanon does not have an extradition treaty with Japan, according to Japan’s justice ministry, making it unlikely that he could be forced to return to Tokyo to face trial.
It was unclear how Mr Ghosn, who holds French, Brazilian and Lebanese citizenship, was able to leave Japan, where his movement and communications had been monitored to prevent him fleeing the country of tampering with evidence. His lawyer in Japanese said he retained possession of all three of Mr Ghosn's passports.
He was reportedly smuggled out of his home in Japan, where he was under house arrest, in a musical instrument case belonging to a Gregorian band who had turned up earlier that evening under the guise of performing at a party. He was then taken to a local airport in a daring escape assisted by Lebanese special forces, according to the country's news channel MTV.
A person resembling Mr Ghosn entered Beirut’s Rafic al-Hariri International Airport under a different name after flying in on a private jet, Japanese public broadcaster NHK reported, citing an unidentified Lebanese security official.
According to The Financial Times, the former Nissan boss landed at the airport late on Sunday.
The Wall Street Journal, citing people familiar with the matter, reported he had travelled to Lebanon via Turkey. One unidentified person told the newspaper Mr Ghosn did not believe he would get a fair trial in Japan and was “tired of being an industrial political hostage”.
He is reportedly set to hold a press conference in the coming days.
A Nissan source told Reuters: “I think he gave up fighting the prosecutors in court. It’s outrageous”.
Mr Ghosn was arrested on 19 November, 2018, shortly after his private jet landed in Tokyo. He faces four charges – which he denies – including concealing income and enriching himself through payments to dealerships in the Middle East.
Nissan sacked him as chairman after internal investigations found misconduct ranging from understating his salary while he was its chief executive, and transferring $5m (£3.8m) of company funds to an account in which he had an interest.
Mr Ghosn has claimed he is the victim of a boardroom coup, accusing former Nissan colleagues of “backstabbing” and describing them as selfish rivals bent on derailing a closer alliance between the Japanese carmaker and its top shareholder Renault, of which he was also chairman.
His lawyers have asked the court to dismiss all charges, accusing prosecutors of colluding with government officials and Nissan executives to oust him to block any takeover of the by Renault.
The case has brought scrutiny of Japan’s criminal justice system, which allows suspects to be detained for long periods and prohibits defence lawyers from being present during interrogations that can last eight hours a day.
Mr Ghosn was released from prison in March on a $9m (£6.9m) bail, among the highest ever paid in Japan, after the court rejected an appeal by prosecutors to keep him behind bars. He had since been under house arrest.
France’s junior economy minister Agnes Pannier-Runacher said she was “very surprised” by news of Mr Ghosn’s arrival in Lebanon, adding she had heard of it through the media.
She told broadcaster BFM-TV he was “not above the laws” but was entitled to consular support from France.
Brazilian-born, of Lebanese descent and a French citizen, Mr Ghosn began his career in 1978 at tyre maker Michelin. In 1996, he moved to Renault where he oversaw a turnaround at the carmaker that won him the nickname “Le Cost Killer”.
After Renault sealed an alliance with Nissan in 1999, he used similar methods to revive the ailing brand, leading to business superstar status in Japan, blanket media coverage and even a manga comic book on his life.
In a 2011 nationwide poll about who the Japanese would like to run their country, Mr Ghosn finished seventh – two places ahead of Barack Obama. In another survey, he was named the man Japanese women most wanted to marry.
Additional reporting by agencies
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