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Carlos Ghosn might not be as safe in Lebanon as he thought

Lebanon received an Interpol wanted notice on Jan. 2 for former Nissan executive Carlos Ghosn, who revealed Dec. 31 that he had fled Japan for Beirut. (Video: Reuters)
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BEIRUT — If Carlos Ghosn thought he would be safe in Lebanon, he may have been very wrong.

A group of lawyers on Thursday lodged a complaint with Lebanon’s judiciary charging that visits he made to Israel in his position as chairman of Renault and later Nissan constitute a crime under laws forbidding citizens from interacting with Lebanon’s arch-foe, which has been in a state of war with Lebanon for the past 60 years.

That could put him in a tougher position than any charges of embezzlement or financial wrongdoing, which are the norm among elites in Lebanon’s deeply corrupt society. Collaborating with the enemy is regarded as a serious offense, potentially more serious than the charges the former Nissan executive was facing when he slipped out of Japan earlier this week and showed up in Beirut, expecting a warm welcome.

If found guilty, the Brazilian-born Ghosn, who also holds Lebanese and French nationalities, could face a prison sentence of up to 15 years in Lebanon, according to judicial officials.

The prevailing narrative, that Ghosn is a hero in Lebanon, a native son who set out into the world and made his fortune, seems about to take a big dent.

“If he thinks that he actually could be protected here, it’s not going to happen, because according to Lebanese law he visited Israel, which is an enemy state,” said Mohammed Obeid, a Lebanese political analyst.

“First, he’s corrupted, and, second, he’s a traitor. So how can he be a Lebanese hero?” he asked. “Maybe he is popular with some of his friends, but to most Lebanese he is a collaborator.”

Ghosn’s new Lebanon headache came as the international community scrambled to unravel the mystery of how he managed to skip bail in Japan, where his passports were supposedly held under lock and key by his lawyers and the Japanese authorities.

Turkish police detained seven people Thursday, including four pilots, on suspicion of having helped Ghosn escape Japan and transit through Istanbul on his way to Lebanon. An investigation has been launched into Ghosn’s “illegal arrival” in Turkey after he escaped house arrest in Japan, according to the Anadolu news agency.

The four pilots were believed to have traveled on the private jet that brought Ghosn from Japan on his way to Beirut. Two employees of a private ground handling company and the operations manager of a private cargo company were also detained.

Lebanon’s Justice Ministry said Thursday that it has received a wanted notice for Ghosn issued by Interpol, the international police organization. But while Interpol “red notices” alert police about internationally wanted fugitives, there is no compulsion for any country to arrest the subject.

A senior Lebanese security official said that Lebanon did not intend to act on the notice because Ghosn is not wanted for any crimes in Lebanon. “Once he is legally in the country, we don’t have the authority to arrest him,” the official said.

The official spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.

“He did not kill anyone or commit an international crime. Still, we have to watch developments as things are becoming more complicated,” he added.

Ghosn has said he is not a fugitive from justice but was escaping injustice and political persecution.

Independent legal experts contrast the harsh treatment that Ghosn received in Japan — a total of more than 120 days’ detention in an unheated cell and hours of interrogation without a lawyer present on charges that carried a maximum sentence of 15 years — with the way Japanese business executives often get away with a slap on the wrist for much more serious crimes.

Nevertheless, major questions remain unanswered about Ghosn’s tenure as head of Nissan and Renault, two car companies whose fortunes he turned around and merged into a powerful alliance. Ghosn was charged with four counts of financial misconduct and aggravated breach of trust, including by allegedly underreporting his income and enriching himself through payments to dealerships in the Middle East.

Whether things get really complicated for Ghosn in Lebanon could be subject to Lebanon’s labyrinthine politics. The country is teetering from a wave of popular protests demanding substantial reforms to a system that typically divides powerful positions according to sect. Separately, a financial crisis is pushing the country toward total economic collapse.

Ghosn is known to have powerful allies, including the country’s foreign minister, Gebran Bassil, and Bassil’s father-in-law, Lebanese President Michel Aoun. They are among the leaders battling for influence over positions in the next government with other Lebanese factions, including the powerful Hezbollah movement.

There is a risk, said Sami Nader, who heads the Lebanese Institute for Strategic Affairs, that Ghosn could become a political football in the wider Lebanese power struggle, a bargaining chip to be tossed into the negotiations for a new government. “The issue is already internationalized,” he said. “The question now is whether it will also become Lebanonized.”

The lawyers who filed the suit said they had no political motives other than to assert their sense of justice. Ali Abbas, one of the lawyers involved, said he supports the popular revolution against Lebanon’s government. It is an outrage, he said, that Ghosn should be welcomed back to Lebanon when he had dealings with Israel, a country whose wars against Lebanon have killed Lebanese civilians.

“Tolerating normalization with the Zionist entity (meaning Israel) is not acceptable and the attempt to show Carlos Ghosn as a national hero and a redeemer of the economic crisis in spite of his dealings with Israel is something that we civil society activists will not accept,” said the case they filed with the office of the public prosecutor.

Ghosn does not deny that he has visited Israel, friends said. Photographs circulated on social media showing him meeting with then-Israeli President Shimon Peres and then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert during a 2008 visit to seal a deal between Renault and Israel to produce electric cars.

“He is an international CEO with three passports, and he visited Israel on a business trip representing the companies he heads,” said Ricardo Karam, a friend who is a TV personality in Lebanon.

The photographs are more than 10 years old, however, and under Lebanon’s statute of limitations, those visits can’t be prosecuted. The lawyers allege that Ghosn visited more recently, and it is now up to the Lebanese judiciary to investigate whether that is true, said Public Prosecutor Ghassan Oweidat.

He said he expected to announce the result of the investigation next Thursday, and if charges are brought, he would then be ordered to appear before a military tribunal.

The law on visiting Israel has been unevenly applied in the past, with some citizens serving lengthy sentences and others being let off. The Oscar-nominated director Ziad Doueiri was detained in 2017 and taken before a military tribunal for filming part of one of his movies in Israel, then released.

It may not come to that, said Nader. “He can play on the divisions in Lebanese society and among Lebanese officials,” he said. “In the Lebanese system, you can always find a way.”

But, he added, “his journey is not over yet.”

Denyer reported from Tokyo and Haidamous from Washington.

He smuggled himself out of Japan. But Carlos Ghosn may escape extradition from Lebanon, too.

Turkey detains seven people over Ghosn’s ‘illegal’ transit through Istanbul

Landing with a splash in Lebanon, Ghosn sends new ripples around the globe

Today’s coverage from Post correspondents around the world

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