Carlos Ghosn, the former chairman of Japan’s Nissan Motor Company, has told a Tokyo court he is innocent of charges of financial misconduct in his first public appearance since his November arrest.
“Your honour, I am innocent of the accusations against me,” Ghosn told the judge, speaking firmly and calmly as he read from a statement. “I am wrongfully accused.”
Japanese prosecutors have charged the once high-flying car industry executive of falsifying financial reports in underreporting his income by about 5bn yen ($44m) over five years until 2015.
“Contrary to the accusations made by the prosecutors, I never received any compensation from Nissan that was not disclosed, nor did I ever enter into any binding contract with Nissan to be paid a fixed amount that was not disclosed,” Ghosn said in an earlier statement that was shared with the media before the hearing.
A crowd of journalists and television crew gathered outside the court building in the Japanese capital for Ghosn’s appearance. His lawyers requested the court date to learn the reasons for the Brazilian-born Frenchman’s prolonged detention.
More than 1,000 people queued for a chance to sit in one of the 14 seats available in the court which were assigned by lottery.
Al Jazeera’s Rob McBride, reporting from outside the court, said the case had broad ramifications, including diplomatic relations between Japan and France and corporate governance within the Asian country itself.
“This was the man who turned around Renault in the 1990s and did the same for Nissan,” McBride said. “With Mitsubishi, this alliance of carmakers was reckoned to be the third largest automaker in the world so there are bigger implications.”
Renault owns 43 percent of Nissan, while Nissan owns 15 percent of Renault. Smaller Japanese carmaker Mitsubishi joined the group more recently.
Revered in the global car industry, Ghosn was first arrested on November 19. Since then, he has been re-arrested twice on different allegations, although not formally charged in any of the accusations, a tactic often used by Japanese prosecutors to keep suspects in detention.
The case has shaken Nissan’s alliance with Renault, where Ghosn remains chairman and chief executive. He had been pushing for a deeper tie-up between the two companies and at the urging of the French government had floated the possibility of a full merger, despite strong reservations at Nissan.
Ghosn appeared gaunt as he arrived in court, McBride said.
The once high-flying executive, dressed in a dark suit and without a tie, was handcuffed as he entered the court; a rope around his waist.
As the hearing began, officers removed the cuffs and seated him on a bench.
Presiding judge Yuichi Tada then read out the charges and said Ghosn, who was arrested on his arrival in Tokyo by private jet, was considered a flight risk who might try to hide evidence.
Go Kondo, one of the lawyers of Ghosn, argued that was not the case.
“He’s widely known so it’s difficult for him to escape,” he told the court. “There is no risk that the suspect will destroy evidence.”
Addressing the court, Ghosn spoke proudly of his record at Nissan, and the carmaker’s recovery, noting the revival of iconic models like the GT-R and the Z, the expansion of operations in China, Russia, Brazil and India as well as the development of electric cars and autonomous driving.
“I have a genuine love and appreciation for Nissan,” he said.
Ghosn has been held in Tokyo’s Kosuge detention centre since November.
Under Japanese law, suspects can be detained without charge for up to 23 days, and then re-arrested on separate allegations.
Ghosn was re-arrested, but not indicted on December 21, on allegations, he transferred personal investment losses worth 1.85bn yen ($17m) to the carmaker.
Ten days later, the Tokyo District Court granted prosecutors’ request to extend Ghosn’s detention by 10 days until January 11.
Nissan has said a whistle-blower investigation also uncovered personal use of company funds and other financial wrongdoing.
Ghosn’s aide, Greg Kelly, has been charged with collaborating with Ghosn to underreport his income. Kelly, an American who also worked at Nissan, was released on bail on December 25. He too has maintained his innocence claim.
No trial dates have been set for Ghosn or Kelly.