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Ghosn makes first public appearance since shock arrest

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Former Nissan boss Carlos Ghosn appeared in public on Tuesday for the first time since his arrest in November rocked the business world, as he offers his side of the story in a high-profile court hearing.

[TOKYO] Former Nissan boss Carlos Ghosn appeared in public on Tuesday for the first time since his arrest in November rocked the business world, as he offers his side of the story in a high-profile court hearing.

The 64-year-old auto industry titan attended a hearing at the Tokyo District Court where the judge was to explain the reasons for Ghosn's continued detention on suspicion of financial misconduct.

He was handcuffed with a rope around his waist and wearing plastic slippers. He wore a dark suit without a tie. His hair was greying at the roots and he looked thinner than in recent pictures.

In an indication of the interest the case has sparked in Japan, more than 1,000 people waited outside the court from the early hours in the hope of getting one of just 14 tickets for the public gallery.

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The hearing, requested by Ghosn himself, is likely to be short and relatively procedural - probably lasting less than an hour, explained Japanese lawyer Yasuyuki Takai.

The judge will give brief and "not very detailed" reasons for Ghosn's continued detention and the businessman is then in theory allowed to "say what he wants until the judge asks him to stop".

Ghosn will reportedly give a statement lasting about 10 minutes in which he will likely proclaim his innocence.

"This hearing will have no bearing on the rest of the case. There's no chance that Ghosn's release will be ordered," Mr Takai told AFP.

But Ghosn's case has repeatedly shown the ability to surprise, from the moment prosecutors stormed the tycoon's private jet at a Tokyo airport on November 19, with the twists and turns gripping Japan and the business world.

Ghosn faces a host of allegations of financial impropriety.

Prosecutors have formally charged him over suspicions he under-declared some five billion yen (S$62.5 million) from his salary in documents to investors over five fiscal years from 2010 - apparently to avoid accusations he was paid too much.

Authorities also suspect he continued this scheme over the next three tax years, seeking to defer another four billion yen of his salary until after retirement.

A third, more complex, accusation is that he sought to shift personal foreign exchange losses onto Nissan's books and then paid a business contact from Saudi Arabia some US$14.7 million - supposedly from company funds - who allegedly stumped up collateral for him.

 'VIGOROUS DEFENCE' 

Ghosn has not been formally charged over the latter two allegations and is preparing to defend himself "vigorously" in court, according to his son Anthony in an interview with French weekly Journal du Dimanche.

"For the first time, he will be able to explain all the charges against him and give his version and I think everyone will be quite surprised to hear his version of the story," the 24-year-old was quoted as saying.

Anthony, who has not spoken to his father, said Ghosn would be released if he signed a confession.

He can "tell the prosecutor that he is contesting the charges or instead he could confess and be released. For seven weeks, his decision has been quite clear," he said.

"The paradox is that the confession he has been asked to sign is written only in Japanese," adding that his father does not understand the language.

The high-profile Ghosn case has thrown the spotlight on the Japanese legal system, which has been criticised in some quarters for the practice of extending the custody of suspects without formal charges being pressed.

On December 31, the court again extended his detention until January 11, at which point prosecutors could rearrest him to question him over other allegations or could free him on bail.

'FAMILY THE PRIORITY'

Ghosn is a legendary figure in the auto industry and is credited with turning around a struggling Nissan - also giving him a high profile rare for foreign executives in Japan.

He forged an unlikely three-way alliance between Mitsubishi Motors, Renault and Nissan that now outsells any other rival group.

But his arrest has laid bare divisions in the tie-up. Nissan and Mitsubishi Motors promptly removed him as chairman whereas the French firm has kept him on while he fights the allegations.

In an interview with AFP on the eve of the hearing, current Nissan CEO Hiroto Saikawa however insisted: "I don't think it's in danger at all."

However, Flavien Neuvy, auto analyst from Paris-based Cetelem, said it was impossible to predict how the affair would hit the grouping.

"Maybe we have hit the limits of this alliance as it was conceived at the beginning," he told AFP.

Meanwhile, Ghosn's son Anthony painted a picture of a devoted family man for whom "money is only a way to help those he loves, not an end in itself".

"He takes his role as a father even more seriously than his role as head of a major company. For him, family is always the priority."

AFP