Ghosn’s ‘Razor’ takes aim at Nissan and prosecutors

Carlos Ghosn poses after Renault’s 2015 annual results presentation at their headquarters in Boulogne-Billancourt, near Paris, France, Feb 12, 2016. (Reuters pic)

TOKYO: Carlos Ghosn’s new lawyer took aim at Nissan, prosecutors and courts on Wednesday, dismissing the charges against the ousted chairman as an internal company matter and saying Japan was out of step with international norms by keeping his client in jail.

“This should have been dealt with as an internal matter,” Junichiro Hironaka, nicknamed the Razor, said at his first press briefing.

Ghosn, who was arrested in November over alleged financial misconduct and remains in detention in a Tokyo jail, picked a new team last week with long-time defence attorney Hironaka as a key member to replace Motonari Otsuru, a lawyer who once ran the prosecutor’s office investigating him.

Hironaka’s combative style contrasts with the low-key approach adopted by a media-shy Otsuru.

Ghosn’s switch to an aggressive legal strategy came after his attempts to win bail failed and just before lawyers were due to sit down with prosecutors and judges for the first time to hash out a schedule for pre-trial discovery meetings, where prosecutors will reveal evidence and submit a list of witnesses.

Hironaka said he didn’t know why Ghosn picked him, but added that Ghosn probably wanted an experienced criminal lawyer as the case moved toward trial.

The 73-year-old defence attorney is reputed for winning high profile cases, including the acquittal of a senior lawmaker, Ichiro Ozawa, on financial misconduct charges. He also helped free a senior bureaucrat Atsuko Muraki who was jailed for four months on corruption charges fabricated by prosecutors.

Yet, even with greater legal firepower the former Nissan Motor boss faces a criminal justice system where only three out of every hundred defendants pleading not guilty are acquitted. Neither does Japan have a plea deal mechanism that would allow Ghosn to agree to lesser charges for a lighter sentence.

“The change in lawyers means a change in style, but the legal strategy will still be the same,” I don’t think it increases Ghosn’s chance of an acquittal,” said Masashi Akita, a defence lawyer at Shin-Yu Law Office in Osaka, ahead of Wednesday’s comments by Hironaka.

Ghosn has lost his perch atop an automotive alliance trio of French carmaker Renault SA and Japanese automakers Nissan and Mitsubishi Motors Corp. Attempts to win bail, including an offer to wear a GPS ankle bracelet and hire security guards to stop him trying to tamper with evidence, failed.

Ghosn stands accused of underreporting compensation spanning eight years to the tune of US$82 million. He also faces breach of trust charges that he shifted personal losses to Nissan and improperly steered US$14.7 million to a Saudi Arabian businessman’s company to help him navigate the problem. Ghosn denies all the charges.

“He is innocent of all the charges,” Hironaka said.

Legal gambit

In January, former attorney Otsuru outlined some of the defence arguments in a lengthy statement prepared when the former executive requested a court hearing about his detention. Ghosn took the step, rare in Japanese legal proceedings, to profess his innocence and challenge his imprisonment.

That hearing could end up backfiring, according to some Japanese legal experts because it established a legal strategy before his lawyers had looked at evidence gathered by prosecutors. Critics of that approach include defence lawyer Takashi Takano, a new member of Ghosn’s legal team who spoke to Reuters before he was hired.

“They have shown their hand. That is not something they should have be doing at that stage,” Takano, who runs his own criminal law practice, said ahead of comments by Ghosn’s new lawyer on Wednesday. “It’s like playing rock-paper-scissors and the defence lawyers lost.”

“It is an unusual strategy,” said Professor Colin Jones, a lawyer and expert in Japan’s legal system at Doshisha University in Kyoto. “There is no plus side to a client statement, all could be used as evidence,” he added.

Wrangling over witnesses and evidence during pretrial discovery could take as long as a year with a subsequent trial stretching through 2020, the legal experts said. Ghosn’s best chance for bail may come about halfway through that process when evidence tampering concerns, the reason given by the court to keep him locked up, ease, they added.

Hironaka said it was difficult to predict when Ghosn will be released. Hironaka and Takano will be joined by Hiroshi Kawatsu from Kasumigaseki Sogo Law Offices to defend Ghosn.

“I have been called the Razor, but it is not a nickname I particularly like. I would rather be known as gentle Hironaka,” he said.