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Japan vows to improve border checks, bail after Ghosn escape

TOKYO – Japan's justice minister vowed Monday to strengthen border checks and review bail conditions after Nissan's former chairman, Carlos Ghosn, fled the country despite supposedly stringent surveillance.

Masako Mori told reporters at a news conference that the ministry has already acted to prevent a recurrence but declined to give details. Ghosn skipped bail and showed up in Lebanon a week ago, saying he could not get a fair hearing in Japan, where he was awaiting trial on financial misconduct allegations.

The Wall Street Journal reported that Michael L. Taylor, a former Green Beret who has previously rescued hostages, was among those involved in Ghosn's escape plan.

The team that spirited Ghosn out of the country made numerous trips to Japan to scout out possible escape routes, the newspaper reported, citing sources it did not identify. It said they settled on Osaka's airport, where cargo X-ray scanners were not big enough to handle the man-sized concert equipment box apparently used to get Ghosn aboard a private flight. He flew from there to Istanbul, then switched to a different plane to fly to Beirut, according to the Turkish airline company MNG Jet, which said its planes were used illegally.

Mori declined to say who might be held responsible for such a high-profile escape, stressing it was still under investigation.

While out on 1.5 billion yen ($14 million) bail, Ghosn was living in a home in an upscale part of Tokyo under strict surveillance as part of the conditions for his release. That raises questions about how he left undetected.

Security cameras at his home operated 24 hours a day, but the footage only had to be submitted to the court on a monthly basis, according to lawyers' documents. Security footage showed he simply walked out of the house alone around noon on Dec. 29, NHK TV reported.

Lebanon has said he entered legally with a French passport on Dec. 30. He has not been seen since, but has promised to speak to reporters on Wednesday.

Mori denounced his escape as an “unjustifiable" crime.

“Japan’s justice system allows investigating the facts while it ensures the individual basic human rights at the same time," Mori told reporters at the ministry. “It is set with appropriate procedures and it is operated appropriately."

Critics say Japan's justice system is too slow and is inhumane. Ghosn was banned from meeting with his wife while out on bail. Preparing for his trial has taken more than a year, and a date has not been set. He was detained, twice, for a total of 130 days before he was released on bail a second time.

Referring to human rights' advocates descriptions of the Japanese legal system as “hostage justice," Mori said, “We are aware of the criticisms.”

Ghosn, formerly chairman of Nissan-Renault-Mitsubishi, was first arrested in November 2018. He is charged with under-reporting his future compensation and breach of trust in diverting Nissan money for his personal gain. He insists he is innocent.

Mori said each nation has its own judicial system and arrests are rarer in Japan than in other countries, suggesting arrests are made only when the authorities are fairly confident they have a case.

“Simple comparisons are misleading,” she said.

French authorities are also investigating Ghosn and the automakers. French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire said Monday that he was surprised by Ghosn’s escape and wants a broader investigation into 11 million euros ($12.3 million) in questionable expenses under Ghosn's watch at the Netherlands-based headquarters of the alliance between Renault, Nissan and Mitsubishi Motors.

Le Maire wouldn’t say where Ghosn should be prosecuted, but said that as Renault’s biggest single shareholder, the French government wants to ensure the struggling automaker prospers again.

“When you are an individual subject to laws, you don’t escape justice. And Carlos Ghosn is an individual like any other,” Le Maire said Monday on France-Inter radio. “He should answer before the justice system.”

Members of Ghosn's legal team say they did not know about his escape plan. Takashi Takano, one of his lawyers, said he felt sad and betrayed that Ghosn didn't try to prove his innocence in court. He also said he understood how Ghosn might have lost hope not only with the prosecutors but with the entire Japanese judicial system.

Yuichi Kaido, another of Ghosn's lawyer, said he was troubled by public support for denying bail to all foreign suspects. He said in an online statement he feared Japan might react to international criticism of its legal system by becoming more insular and rigid in its views.

Ghosn's bail has been revoked, and Interpol has issued a wanted notice. Japan does not have an extradition treaty with Lebanon, but Mori left open the possibility Japan could seek Ghosn's return.

Such a return so far appears unlikely, and Japan's options are limited.

Mori stressed that any retaliatory action, such as economic sanctions, must be decided on very carefully. She would not say if Japan has contacted the U.S. or France for help.

“It is indeed possible to ask for extradition of criminals based on the principle of reciprocity," she said, replying to a question about Lebanon.

“But, upon doing that, we need to carefully study whether it is possible to guarantee this principle of reciprocity and their internal justice system.”

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