Carlos Ghosn versus the Lebanese people

While many countries consider tax fraud as a felony deserving of a prison sentence, the Lebanese consider tax evasion as a sign of wit or perhaps a national sport.
Sunday 02/12/2018
A 2017 file picture shows businessman Carlos Ghosn listening during a news conference at La Defense business district outside Paris. (AP)
Victim or criminal. A 2017 file picture shows businessman Carlos Ghosn listening during a news conference at La Defense business district outside Paris. (AP)

There are many indicators to measure fame and success in Lebanon, among them getting one’s name and face commemorated on a postage stamp.

In Lebanon, very few individuals outside the realm of deceased politicians can claim this honour but among them is Carlos Ghosn, a Brazilian-born businessman of Lebanese descent who achieved phenomenal fame for salvaging the French and Japanese automobile industries.

Ghosn’s arrest in Tokyo on allegations of tax fraud and financial misconduct shocked the public, especially the Lebanese, who refused to believe that one of their finest was a common criminal.

Naturally, the Lebanese refusal to accept Ghosn’s possible guilt stems from the fact that he essentially serves as poster child for the Lebanese national myth and embodies the proud and accomplished Lebanese who, despite all odds, achieved riches.

Lebanese public support for Ghosn took on different forms, which included an online petition — with more than 20,000 signatures — demanding “a high-level official delegation travel to Japan as soon as possible to learn about the conditions of detention of a Lebanese citizen emigrant, surplus, brilliant businessman, known for his great qualities.”

Despite having no insight into the allegations or the Japanese indictment, the petition and its promoters dismissed all charges against Ghosn, framing his arrest as part of a bigger conspiracy to defame Lebanon’s long-lost son.

This populist undertone was equally adopted by the Lebanese state, which through Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil issued strict instructions to the Lebanese ambassador in Tokyo to “stand by [Ghosn] in his adversity to ensure he gets a fair trial.”

Amusingly, Bassil leaked to the media that the Lebanese ambassador went out of his way to purchase a mattress for Ghosn, who was forced by his Japanese jailers to sleep on the floor.

Be that as it may, the Ghosn affair, with its many rumours and conspiracy theories, reveals several realities about the Lebanese and how they look towards justice and accountability.

Ghosn’s arrest certainly transcends a simple bookkeeping error as people of such financial calibre have quasi-immunity and the decision to hold them accountable is a political rather than a purely judicial matter.

Perhaps, as it is rumoured, Ghosn, just like the future fate of his Lebanese compatriots, fell victim to the US sanctions because he refused to abide by the Trump administration requests to shut down Renault’s operation in Iran. While this might be the case, another probable scenario is that Ghosn’s ego and greed led him to believe he was immune to prosecution and so it was permissible to not fully or accurately disclose his income and profits.

While many countries consider tax fraud as a felony deserving of a prison sentence, the Lebanese consider tax evasion as a sign of wit and resourcefulness or perhaps a national sport.

Regrettably, in Lebanon it is common, not to say expected, for tax evaders to receive praise from their peers for devising ways to undercut the government and avoid paying taxes. This is mostly the case because, shockingly, the Lebanese at large say it is a victimless crime but it is a dangerous offence that collectively and indiscriminately harms citizens.

Another alarming aspect of the Lebanese zealots’ support of Ghosn is that they genuinely believe the Japanese judiciary is skewed and incapable of conducting a fair and transparent investigation. Such criticism from the Lebanese would lead one to assume that Lebanon’s judiciary is the epitome of justice and integrity and that the sacred concept of the separation of power is fully espoused in Lebanon. The reality is extremely bleak as the Lebanese judiciary is merely an extension of the decrepit corrupt government that has failed repeatedly to protect its citizens.

These Lebanese and their ambitious foreign minister oddly stayed silent on the matter of Nizar Zakka, a Lebanese businessman who has been accused of espionage and held captive since 2015 by Iranian authorities. Zakka might not be as accomplished or wealthy as Ghosn but, theoretically, both deserve justice, a right Zakka was certainly deprived off when he was sentenced by a kangaroo court and is rotting in an Iranian jail.

If the Lebanese truly want to show their solidarity with Ghosn, they should start by paying taxes — and demand their politicians do so as well — and demand an immediate reform of their judiciary.

Certainly, Carlos Ghosn’s legal predicament and status remain unaffected by the commotion his supposed Lebanese nationals, unlike the Lebanese socio-economic predicament and the country that is rapidly deteriorating.

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