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Lebanon neighbours welcome Ghosn, activists in uproar

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This file photo taken last December shows a portrait of Ghosn on a publicity billboard in his support on a street in Beirut. Many in the country view Ghosn as a prime example of Lebanese entrepreneurial genius.

Beirut

LEBANESE neighbours of embattled former Nissan chief Carlos Ghosn have welcomed his sudden return from Japan, but anti-government protesters accused the ex-tycoon of belonging to a corrupt elite.

In an upper-class district of the Lebanese capital, traffic appeared normal in front the pink-coloured town house said to be the ex-auto tycoon's base in the country. AFP was not immediately able to confirm whether Ghosn was inside the house, where the pale blue shutters had been flung open but a black steel gate was firmly shut. The 65-year-old Brazil-born businessman has said he escaped "injustice" in Japan, where he was on bail awaiting trial over financial misconduct charges.

On the street corner, a shop owner in his fifties named Rene said he was delighted Ghosn had returned for New Year's Eve. "Injustice is unacceptable," said Mr Rene, who said the business tycoon had been a guest of honour at his son's high-school graduation. "They did him wrong. A person is innocent until proven guilty, not the other way around," he added.

"Japan cannot treat like this a person who took over an indebted auto company and turned it around to make profits and become one of the world's leading firms."

Many Lebanese view Ghosn as a symbol of their country's large diaspora and a prime example of Lebanese entrepreneurial genius, and were shocked by his sudden arrest in November 2018. Ghosn was out on bail after 130 days in a Japanese detention centre, but his flight to Lebanon has dumbfounded even his chief lawyer in Japan. He faces charges of deferring part of his salary until after his retirement and concealing this from shareholders, as well as syphoning off millions in Nissan cash for his own purposes.

Journalists gathered in coats and woolly hats outside the pink house in Beirut on Tuesday saw a security guard rushing out of the premises on a motorbike. An unidentified man with greying hair approached the house and slipped a letter through the bars of the gate. And soon after, two vehicles belonging to the security forces pulled up and a high-ranking officer stepped inside the premises briefly before returning to the street.

In the building next door, a blonde woman in her fifties who asked to remain anonymous said she was appalled at the handling of Ghosn's case in Japan. "They cannot treat him this way," she said. "We, his neighbours, have huge respect for him. For the Lebanese, he is a prime example of success."

Ghosn has consistently denied all charges against him, while he and his lawyers have repeatedly voiced fears he would not get a fair trial in Japan.

But elsewhere on social media, Lebanese activists said Ghosn's return was the last straw for a country suffering a twin political and economic crisis. Lebanese are facing a grinding dollar shortage even as politicians argue over a new Cabinet, six weeks into unprecedented protests against a political elite deemed inept and corrupt. Protesters of all political and confessional backgrounds have accused the country's leaders of syphoning off public funds.

"Carlos Ghosn has suddenly befallen us, as if the country didn't already have enough thieves," Ali Mourad, an assistant professor at the Beirut Arab University, wrote on Facebook. AFP