Readers of literature since the 1860s have cheered Jean Valjean, the fugitive from the prosecutorial zeal in Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables. Record-sized 1960s TV viewership of “The Fugitive” rooted for Dr. Richard Kimble’s flight from police after being falsely accused of murdering his wife. Over the past week, front page pieces profiled the cinematic escape of fugitive auto executive Carlos Ghosn from Japanese detention has captured the public’s fascination, but with strangely muted executive attention.
Even a week after his breathtaking caper, multiple cable global business networks carried the two-hour live rambling press conference, despite the immediate backdrop of the suspicious crash of a Boeing 737 Ukrainian jet liner outside Tehran, which caused the loss of 146 civilian lives.
Ghosn’s press conference was bound to disappoint and confuse given the conflict of goals. The media clamored for theater, wanting to know the cast and plot of his breathtaking escape. But Ghosn wanted to protect his rescuers’ secrecy. Instead, Ghosn’s intended message was to defend his perceived innocence of wrongdoing and reveal the corruption behind his abduction as well as his denial of basic human right. Much of this was lost in the fountain of understandable emotion and painful meandering details of his suffering.
The surprise is not any misplaced media attention showered on the plight of a privileged industrial titan, given larger geopolitical events. The surprise is that despite the wrongful nature of Ghosn’s detention, the focus has been on the drama of his brilliantly conceived and executed flight from injustice with little outcry from global leaders—whether it be from government officials, human rights advocates, or business leaders.
Ghosn was taken hostage as a victim of Japanese nationalistic fervor. While there were vague accusations of possible misuse of Nissan company funds by Ghosn as its chairman, extensive email evidence suggests that such planned payments may have been reasonable board discussed bonuses never received by Ghosn.
Sure Ghosn is guilty—of lack of humility and of injuring Japanese pride. Through admittedly draconian measures, he revived the Japanese automaker 17 years ago from certain collapse with funds from Renault and his own management oversight. This gave Renault a 43.5% control of Nissan, but Nissan only was given a reciprocal 15 percent of Renault. Japanese sentiment was further inflamed by the fact that France, with a comparable stake in Renault, had super voting rights.
After passing the reins to his successor Hirutu Saikawa two years ago, Nissan’s value fell by a third. Ghosn traveled to Japan to replace Saikawa, but was greeted at the airport by Japanese authorities who arrested him, denied him due process and threw him into an unheated cell in solitary confinement, with no access to his wife or western lawyers, limited access to his family, and no phone, email or internet connectivity. Presumed guilty, he was interrogated by authorities for repeated eight-hour stretches intended to produce a coerced confession, which would be the only way he could obtain release.
After 100 days of imprisonment without charges, in a series of 22-day periods of incarceration with thinly sliced new allegations used to reinstate jail time, he eventually obtained bail in exchange for $14 million in cash. Even then he was denied access to his wife, his western lawyers and any communication tools. He then learned he might not even be tried for another five years and even then, given Japan prosecutors’ 94 percent successful conviction rate, he faced a certain sentence of 15 years and thus no freedom until age 85. So he fled such injustice.
Ironically, Saikawa was accused of corruption this fall but Saikawa was not thrown into solitary confinement, allowed to resign quietly. The recent lethal misconduct of officials at Takada airbags and Toyko Electric’s Fukishima Daichi nuclear catastrophe did not lead to criminal punishment in Japan.
This is not the first time western business leaders have been held captive by surges of nationalistic sentiment. In 1978, 11 months before Iranian mobs raided the U.S. embassy and seized American diplomatic hostages, two EDS employees were arrested with no charges offered until unsubstantiated bribery allegations were conjured up weeks later. After three months of lack of global outrage, EDS’s boss Ross Perot executed a bold rescue, hiring a former U.S. military commando similar to the one hired by Ghosn.
When tourists, scholars and clergy are taken hostage global opinion leaders appropriately rally to their assistance. At the opening of Carlos Ghosn’s press conference, he thanked his family, his lawyers and his rescuers, but he expressed no gratitude to courageous institutional voices.
Ghosn’s situation parallels the current detention of two Canadian business executives in China and two U.S. business executives in China as nationalist retaliation. In 2014, after Canadian authorities arrested a Chinese businessman for extradition to the U.S. over hacking claims, Chinese police arrested a Canadian couple (who had been running a café since the 1980s) on spy charges.
In recent years, Rio Tinto has had four engineers in China arrested with only vague charges and in Madagascar, 200 mining officials, including the country’s CEO were blockaded in a mine compound for several days by protestors.
In 2009, workers at a French tire factory held two Goodyear executives hostage and promised to hold them until exchanged for “enormous amounts of money.” Six U.S. executives have been held captive in Venezuela on trumped up corruption charges with hearings deferred 12 times.
Two months ago, Senator Ted Cruz and Tom Cotton proposed The Global Hostages Act. This bill would mandate the president impose sanctions, banning visas for foreign government officials responsible to taking U.S. persons hostage.
That might be a good start as would the vocal concern of business groups now openly concerned about social justice in their communities. Why not add their own manager to that list of vulnerable stakeholders in need of protection so it is not only those with the resources of Ross Pert or Carlos Ghosn who can escape injustice? In fact, might this not be a good topic to add to the breast-pounding global elites at upcoming Davos deliberations?