In an unexpected move today, a Tokyo court decided not to extend the detention of ousted Nissan Motor Co chairman Carlos Ghosn, meaning he may soon be released from jail where he has been since his arrest for alleged financial misconduct.
The Tokyo District Court said it also decided against extending detention for Greg Kelly, a former Nissan executive who was arrested along with Ghosn on Nov. 19. Lawyers for both men were not immediately available for comment.
The Tokyo District Public Prosecutor's office declined to comment on whether it will appeal the decision. Deputy prosecutor Shin Kukimoto said only that his office will respond "appropriately".
Ghosn led Nissan, Mitsubishi Motors Corp and France's Renault SA. He was indicted on Dec 10 for allegedly understating his income by about half over a five-year period from 2010, and re-arrested the same day for the same alleged crime covering the past three years.
The 10-day detention period in the second instance ran out today. Both he and Kelly have denied wrongdoing, local media have reported.
The court had widely been expected to extend the detention for at least another 10 days, as granting bail to suspects who insist on their innocence has until recently been unusual in Japan. It did not disclose reasons for its decision.
The high-profile case has put Japan's criminal justice system under international scrutiny and sparked criticism for some of its practices, including keeping suspects in detention for long periods and prohibiting defence lawyers from being present during interrogations, which can last eight hours a day.
The court's decision could reflect sensitivity to that criticism as well as changing attitudes in the courts, said Masashi Akita, a defence lawyer in Osaka with more than 30 years' experience.
"They are very nervous about criticism of their lenient approach toward detention. This is a typical case of such changing, I suppose," Akita said in emailed responses to Reuters' questions. "I think this case has a big impact and effect on the Japanese justice practice, and such a move is favourable for the defence side."
Public broadcaster NHK said Ghosn (photo) could be released today or tomorrow if any appeal by prosecutors is rejected by the court and bail is granted.
However, Akita said it could take until the middle of next week for all procedures to run their course – if indeed the men are freed.
Unknown bail amounts
Ghosn's arrest marked a dramatic fall for a leader once hailed for rescuing Nissan from the brink of bankruptcy.
Accustomed to a globe-trotting lifestyle, Ghosn has been treated like others in detention, held in a small room without a heater and a toilet in the corner.
Authorities have limited his opportunities to shower and shave, a person familiar with the matter previously told Reuters.
It was not immediately clear how much bail would be, meaning it was still uncertain whether Ghosn would indeed be released.
Activist fund manager Yoshiaki Murakami, arrested in 2006 for insider trading, paid an initial 500 million yen (US$4.47 million) in bail.
At the centre of allegations against Ghosn is his Nissan income, with Tokyo prosecutors charging the executive for failing to disclose compensation that he had arranged to receive later.
Nissan has said a whistleblower investigation also uncovered personal use of company funds and other misconduct.
The scandal has shaken the Nissan-Mitsubishi-Renault alliance, with Nissan Chief Executive Hiroto Saikawa calling for changes to weaken the clout of Renault SA, which owns a controlling stake in Nissan.
Renault has so far not replaced Ghosn as its head, saying his compensation had been in compliance with law and governance guidelines.
Documents seen by Reuters showed that executives at both Nissan and Renault were involved in discussions about compensating Ghosn out of the public eye.
Nissan today said Saikawa earlier this week held a one-on-one meeting with Renault acting boss Thierry Bollore, which Saikawa described as "positive". Details of the discussions were not disclosed.
A Nissan spokesman declined to comment on the court's decision, saying he could only speak about the company's investigations or executive misconduct.