Former auto industry titan Carlos Ghosn moved a step closer to freedom Tuesday as a Tokyo court unexpectedly granted him bail after more than three months in a detention cell.
It was the latest twist in a case that has kept Japan and the business world gripped since the tycoon’s shock arrest on November 19 over suspicions of financial misconduct.
The court set bail at one billion yen ($9 million), but prosecutors appealed the decision and could even file additional allegations against the 64-year-old to keep him from leaving detention.
Under his bail terms, Ghosn is banned from leaving Japan and must adhere to conditions aimed at preventing him from fleeing or destroying evidence.
The shock decision came a day after Ghosn’s new lead defense lawyer, Junichiro Hironaka, told reporters he had filed a “convincing” application for bail that contained fresh elements.
Hironaka, who has a reputation for securing acquittals for high-profile clients in a country where almost all court cases end in conviction, offered greater surveillance of Ghosn and a limit on his electronic communications.
The court has previously said Ghosn’s continued detention was justified because he posed a flight risk and could seek to tamper with evidence. It had already rejected two official bail bids and other attempts to win freedom.
However, his prolonged stay behind bars has come under fire internationally and from rights groups.
Speaking to AFP and French daily Les Echos in January — his only interview with foreign media so far — Ghosn himself said that his continued detention “would not be normal in any other democracy”.
“Why am I being punished before being found guilty?” Ghosn asked.
The former head of Nissan, Mitsubishi Motors and Renault faces three charges — two involving alleged under-reporting of his salary and a third over a complex scheme in which Ghosn allegedly sought to transfer his losses to Nissan’s books.
Further claims of financial misconduct have been levelled against him and prosecutors may yet slap him with additional allegations to keep him in detention.
Under Japanese law, prosecutors can hold a suspect for up to 22 days while they investigate an allegation, and then can apply for repeated one-month stretches of pre-trial detention for each charge eventually leveled.
That means prosecutors could effectively prevent Ghosn from leaving detention despite today’s bail decision if they level new allegations against him, starting the 22-day detention clock.
Ghosn has denied all the allegations against him.
In a shake-up of his legal team last month, Ghosn replaced a former prosecutor known as “the breaker” with Hironaka, who has earned the nickname “the acquitter” for his court record and the “razor” for his mental sharpness.
Speaking to reporters on Monday, Hironaka vowed a “completely new legal strategy” to obtain his client’s release.
“I think the content of the lawyer’s application changed the situation,” said Japanese lawyer Nobuo Gohara.
Ghosn’s previous lead defence attorney was a former prosecutor who “always took the side of the prosecution and did not give good enough arguments to persuade the judge,” said Gohara.
“This time, he had a lawyer who put all his effort into getting a decision from the judge,” he added.
Nissan declined to comment on the bail decision, saying it was a matter for courts and prosecutors.
However, it said that an internal probe had “uncovered substantial evidence of blatantly unethical conduct” and that “further discoveries related to Ghosn’s misconduct continue to emerge”.
“The company’s focus is firmly on addressing weaknesses in governance that failed to prevent this misconduct,” it added in a statement.
A towering figure once revered in Japan for turning around Nissan’s fortunes, Ghosn also forged a successful alliance between Nissan, Mitsubishi Motors and France’s Renault.
But his attempts to deepen the alliance caused resentment in some quarters, and Ghosn has claimed the allegations against him are part of a “plot” by opponents of greater integration between the three firms.
Given the number of people involved in the complex case and their wide geographical spread, Hironaka said the case would run over a “very long time span”.
However, he said prosecutors had begun handing over some of their evidence prior to a potential trial.
On Monday, Ghosn’s family said in a statement they would appeal to the United Nations Human Rights Council.
The family slammed Japan for its “medieval rules”, in a statement read out by a lawyer representing Ghosn’s wife Carole, who has previously described her husband’s detention conditions as “deplorable”.