Former Nissan boss Carlos Ghosn Wednesday shook up his top legal team as he vowed to prove his innocence and defend himself with vigour against charges of financial misconduct.
In the latest twist to a saga that has gripped Japan and the business world since his stunning arrest in November, Ghosn confirmed in a statement from his detention centre that he had hired a new lead counsel.
He replaced former prosecutor Motonari Otsuru with hot-shot lawyer Junichiro Hironaka, who has a history of taking on high-profile cases and enjoys an enviable acquittal rate in a country where almost every trial results in a guilty verdict.
"I look forward to defending myself vigorously, and this represents the beginning of the process of not only establishing my innocence but also shedding light on the circumstances that led to my unjust detention," said Ghosn, 64.
Earlier Otsuru's firm issued a brief statement saying only that he and another lawyer had "submitted letters of resignation to the court as the defence lawyers for the case of Mr. Ghosn".
The surprise shake-up came on the eve of an expected first meeting between the Tokyo District Court, prosecutors, and defence lawyers to discuss the outlines of Ghosn's eventual trial.
Ghosn thanked Otsuru and his team for their "tireless and diligent work and courage during the interrogation phase of my incarceration" and hailed his former counsel as a "very capable and intelligent man and lawyer".
The Franco-Lebanese-Brazilian tycoon has languished in a Tokyo detention centre since November 19 on three charges of financial misconduct and has seen two bail requests refused, with the court judging him a flight risk.
In an interview with AFP and France's Les Echos last month, he slammed his ongoing detention, saying that the refusal to free him "would not be normal in any other democracy." He faces charges that he under-reported his income between 2010 and 2015 to the tune of five billion yen (USD 46 million) and continued to do so for a further three years.
Ghosn also stands accused of a complex scheme to try to pass off personal foreign exchange losses to Nissan and using company funds to reimburse a Saudi contact who stumped up collateral for him.
He told AFP in January that the allegations against him and his arrest were "a story of betrayal," insisting "there is not one yen that I have received that was not reported".
Speaking outside his office, Hironaka, 73, confirmed that he had been asked to join the legal team after consulting with the tycoon and his family. "I believe he (Ghosn) remains consistent about fighting (against the charges)," Hironaka said.
Hironaka is a veteran and celebrated defence lawyer and was involved in the successful defence in 2012 of influential politician Ichiro Ozawa, a shrewd election strategist accused of playing a role in misreporting political funds.
There had been no public sign of a rift between Ghosn and his lead lawyers, though neither the executive nor the attorney have spoken much publicly since the arrest.
Otsuru gave a single press conference after Ghosn made a brief court appearance on January 8 to challenge his ongoing detention.
The owlish defence lawyer cut a cautious figure at the press event, telling journalists that his client was unlikely to make bail before his case came to court, which he said could take six months.
He also pointedly declined to criticise Ghosn's detention conditions, despite some international concern about the repeated extension of the auto executive's pre-trial custody.
Otsuru said he was meeting Ghosn regularly for several hours at a time, describing his then-client as focused.
"He's very calm and logical in his current situation," Otsuru said.
Although he has taken on some of Japan's most high-publicity cases, Otsuru is known for maintaining a low media profile and little is known about his personal life.
A former prosecutor, the bespectacled 63-year-old with floppy greying hair earned the soubriquet "the breaker" as he was so good at extracting confessions from suspects. In a twist of fate, representing Ghosn's pitted him against prosecutor Hiroshi Morimoto, a former colleague.
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