French magistrates question fugitive auto magnate in Beirut

International
Carlos Ghosn

Former Nissan executive Carlos Ghosn speaks during an interview with the Associated Press, in Dbayeh, north of Beirut, Lebanon, Tuesday, May 25, 2021. Lebanese judicial officials say a team of French investigators have begun questioning Ghosn in Beirut Monday, May 31, 2021, over suspicions of misconducts. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)

BEIRUT (AP) — Ex-Nissan boss Carlos Ghosn sat before French investigative judges in Beirut who questioned him for several hours Monday over suspicions of financial misconduct. His defense lawyers called it “a very important day” for the auto magnate-turned-fugitive.

The meeting marked the first opportunity for Ghosn to defend himself against the French allegations —- including spending on lavish parties and private planes — since his 2018 bombshell arrest in Japan and escape to Lebanon a year later.

“It is an occasion that Mr. Ghosn has waited for a long time to show that the accusations brought against him are baseless,” Jean Yves Le Borgne, a member of Ghosn’s defense team, told reporters in Beirut. He said the questioning was expected to last several days.

The questioning at the Palace of Justice in Beirut lasted about six hours, including a lunch break. Ghosn did not make any comments to reporters and Lebanese security forces kept journalists away from the gate where he entered and exited the courthouse.

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 Associated Press 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 accusations 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 Palace — complete with period costumes and copious Champagne — as the head of the Renault-Nissan car alliance. They’re also examining 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.

Jean Tamalet, one of two French lawyers representing Ghosn along with one Lebanese attorney, said Monday’s meeting was “the very first time of justice” for Ghosn since being arrested in Japan, adding that it was “the first time he could explain himself in front of judges with his lawyers seated near him and after preparing his defense.”

“So it was a very important day for him today and he was very happy to give all the answers to all the questions asked by the French judges,” he said.

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

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 into Renault’s pollutant emissions, according to two Lebanese officials.

Renault, along with other carmakers, is facing an investigation that dates back to 2017 over cheating on emission tests, a charge the company denies. It 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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