Ghosn escape sparks calls to toughen Japan's bail system

In this file photo taken on November 8, 2018 then Chairman and CEO of Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi Carlos Ghosn looks on during a visit of French President at the Renault factory, in Maubeuge, northern France. Photo AFP

Tokyo, Japan | Carlos Ghosn's stunning flight while on bail awaiting trial has vindicated prosecutors who said he should have been kept in custody, and sparked calls to toughen Japan's justice system that critics say is already overly harsh.


"I knew it!" was the reaction of a senior Nissan executive cited in the Japanese press upon learning of his former boss's escape to Lebanon to avoid trial in Tokyo.


"This is how he proves his innocence? By fleeing abroad?" added the Nissan official quoted in the Asahi Shimbun. "It should be out of the question to grant bail to suspects who deny the accusations against them."


A senior prosecutor told the Mainichi Shimbun: "This is what we had predicted" when arguing Ghosn should remain in custody, bemoaning the fact their painstaking evidence gathering was now moot.


There were also calls in the media to tighten bail procedures in the wake of the tycoon's escape, which many papers said made a "mockery" of Japan's justice system.


"To prevent a repeat of the incident, we should discuss how to cover the weak points of the system, such as setting bail equal to most of the defendants' assets, and GPS monitoring," said the Yomiuri Shimbun.


Ghosn's high-profile arrest on multiple charges of financial misconduct threw an international spotlight on Japan's justice system -- widely considered draconian compared with the West.


Suspects can be questioned initially for 48 hours, renewable for two periods of 10 days, bringing the time in custody without formal charges to 22 days.


Prosecutors often then "re-arrest" a suspect on a slightly different allegation to restart the clock -- which happened several times to Ghosn.


- Certain of guilt -

When formal charges are eventually pressed, there is a two-month period of pre-trial detention, renewable by one month at a time by appeal to the court.


Former prosecutor Yasuyuki Takai told AFP that the system operates in this way so authorities only charge suspects they are absolutely sure are guilty.


"Imagine that 30 or 40 percent of people were found not guilty during a trial. The public would ask why so many innocent people were being charged," Takai told AFP, adding that courts have increasingly been granting bail. 


The Ghosn case, however, "proves that there are easy escape routes for wealthy people with backing who want to flee overseas, no matter how strictly courts impose bail conditions", said Tsunehiko Maeda, a former prosecutor.


"We can expect prosecutors to oppose future bail requests much more robustly." 


Critics including rights groups such as Amnesty International have derided Japan's system as "hostage justice", designed to break morale and force confessions from suspects.


- Every move monitored -

When safely in Lebanon, Ghosn pressed this point again, saying he "would no longer be held hostage by a rigged Japanese justice system".


However, when pleading for bail in his only public court appearance, Ghosn said he was "looking forward to beginning the process of defending myself against the accusations that have been made against me".


One of his lawyers at the time said there was no way a tycoon as famous as Ghosn could escape with the world's media and prosecutors monitoring his every move.


"There is no risk that he will run away. He's CEO of French company Renault. He's widely known so it's difficult for him to escape," argued the attorney, Go Kondo.


His lead lawyer, Junichiro Hironaka, confessed he was "dumbfounded" by news of his flight, but he also said he could "sympathise" with some of Ghosn's comments about the justice system.


"I thought it was not unreasonable that Mr. Ghosn has come to feel that way," Hironaka told reporters in Tokyo.


"How he was arrested and kept in detention; how they gathered evidence; the way they allowed meetings with Carole (his wife), and how they disclosed evidence. There must have been many areas that were not acceptable in the eyes of Mr. Ghosn."


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