French magistrates question fugitive auto magnate in Beirut

One of Carlos Ghosn's vehicles leaves the Justice Palace in Beirut, Lebanon.   | Photo Credit: AP

A team of French investigators began questioning ex-Nissan boss Carlos Ghosn in Beirut on Monday over suspicions of financial misconduct, Lebanese judicial officials said.

The meeting marks the first opportunity for the auto magnate-turned-fugitive to defend himself against French allegations of financial misconduct since his 2018 bombshell arrest in Japan and escape to Lebanon a year later.

The questioning at the Palace of Justice in Beirut — expected to last several days — was attended by members of the Lebanese judiciary, the officials said.

They said seven French judges, most of them investigative magistrates and a prosecutor, were taking part in the questioning, which was attended by Lebanese prosecutor Imad Qabalan.

The officials spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity in line with regulations.

Ghosn is campaigning to clear his name against multiple legal challenges in France after Japanese accusations triggered scrutiny of his activities there.

In a wide ranging interview with the AP last week, he said he hopes the visit by French investigators to Lebanon will be his first real opportunity to defend himself.

He also said he had much more confidence in the French legal system than the Japanese system he had fled.

Ghosn has not so far been charged with anything in France, but could be, given preliminary charges of fraud, corruption, money laundering, misuse of company assets, or aggravated breach of trust.

The French investigators are looking into the financing of lavish parties Ghosn threw at the Versailles chateau — complete with period costumes and copious Champagne — as the head of the Renault-Nissan car alliance, as well as 11 million euros in spending on private planes and events arranged by a Dutch holding company, and subsidies to a car dealership in Oman.

Ghosn told the AP he has done nothing wrong and hopes the investigations are eventually dropped.

Ghosn was arrested in Japan in November 2018 on accusations of financial misconduct and was kept in solitary confinement for months without being allowed to speak with his wife.

He fled to Lebanon a year later in a Hollywood-style escape that stunned the world. Meanwhile, several associates are in jail or on trial in Japan and Turkey, in cases related to his financial activities or escape.

Ghosn’s Lebanese and French lawyers said in a statement earlier Monday that their client will be questioned by “French investigating judges, in the context of legal proceedings organised by the Lebanese judicial authorities.” The statement added that the “hearing is a voluntary step taken” by Ghosn.

Ghosn will be assisted by one Lebanese and two French lawyers during the questioning.

Ghosn’s defense team said they have “already identified serious procedural irregularities in the French dossiers.” The defense team said “abnormalities, which undermine the judicial process, are the result of the peculiar methods of the Japanese investigation” that was the primary source for building the French cases.

It is an unusual move for French magistrates to question a suspect abroad. Ghosn, who was given sanctuary by Lebanese authorities, grew up in Lebanon and has Lebanese citizenship. Lebanon will not extradite him.

Monday’s interrogation comes days after Ghosn was questioned by French investigators as a witness in a different case — a probe over Renault’s pollutant emissions, according to two Lebanese officials.

Renault, along with other carmakers, is facing a probe that dates back to 2017 over cheating emission tests, a charge the company denies. The probe follows earlier investigations by French anti-fraud authorities who found abnormally high emissions from some of Renault’s diesel engineered cars.

Ghosn had been with Renault since 1996, until its alliance with Nissan in 1999.

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Printable version | Jan 29, 2022 9:23:54 AM |

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