Jan 13, 2022 - Economy & Business

Exclusive: Fugitive Carlos Ghosn calls Japanese justice system a 'joke'

Photo illustration of Carlos Ghosn with cars and abstract shapes.

Photo illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios. Photo: Hasan Shaaban/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Former Nissan boss and international fugitive Carlos Ghosn predicts a major reordering of the power center in the auto industry, he told Axios in an exclusive interview.

Why it matters: Ghosn was once one of the automotive industry's most powerful leaders — among the first major execs to invest in electric vehicles. His comments now come during a major inflection point in the sector's transition to EVs as companies battle for positioning.

Driving the news: “I’m being solicited a lot by mainly small and startup companies which are trying to create for themselves a road into this new industry,” he says.

  • The once-globe-trotting citizen of Lebanon, Brazil and France spoke on Zoom from his home in Beirut, holding his phone vertically and reclining on a couch with a sprawling bookcase in the background.

Ghosn tells Axios he’s not interested in leading a major automotive company anymore, even if his charges disappear, saying he no longer has the motivation to do so. But he’s happy to consult with companies that contact him about how to tackle electric vehicles and self-driving cars.

  • “I’m trying to help companies get rid of the past,” he says.
  • Ghosn had high praise for Tesla and Elon Musk, marveling at the company surpassing $1 trillion in market capitalization. He says companies like Tesla and Rivian are best positioned to win the EV race.

The big picture: Ghosn predicts traditional automakers like Nissan, GM and Ford won’t be able to keep up with startups, which “don’t have the rigidity of mind.”

  • He acknowledges that GM and Ford, in particular, have made progress with the introduction of electric pickups like the Chevrolet Silverado and Ford F-150 Lightning. But he says they'll continue to shrink.
  • “A lot of companies are going to be left behind,” he says. “If you don’t go 100% electric, you’re not going to be part of this industry anymore.”

Catch up fast: Japanese authorities and Nissan in late 2018 alleged that Ghosn underreported his compensation, a crime in Japan. He’s denied any wrongdoing.

  • A year later, Ghosn escaped house arrest in an elaborate plot. He tucked himself inside a musical equipment box to elude the police and airport security, and flew through Turkey on his way to his boyhood Lebanon, which has no extradition treaty with Japan and hasn’t taken action against him. More than half a dozen alleged accomplices were later arrested.

What’s next: If he can’t get Japan to drop charges or if Interpol doesn't withdraw its “red notice” seeking his detainment, Ghosn may spend the rest of his life in Lebanon.

  • Ghosn tells Axios he’s still irate at what he called Japan’s “hostage justice system,” given its 99.3% conviction rate. He maintains his innocence and the innocence of fellow former Nissan executive Greg Kelly, who is facing charges on accusations he helped Ghosn obscure his compensation.
  • “I frankly do not believe in the system. I think it’s a joke,” he says. “They don’t give a sh*t about us.”

The other side: The Japanese embassy did not respond to a request for comment, and Nissan declined to comment.

  • Defenders of the Japanese judicial system say local prosecutors have a high conviction rate in part because they only take on 37% of arrest cases, according to a report published by the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

The bottom line: Ghosn might be stuck in Lebanon, but expect him to remain an influential presence in the automotive industry regardless of his legal situation.

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