A former Nissan executive who is accused of conspiring with the firm’s fugitive former chairman, Carlos Ghosn, to falsify financial statements has pleaded not guilty in the first hearing of his highly anticipated trial.

American Greg Kelly, who faces up to 10 years in prison if convicted of financial misconduct, faces a single charge – conspiring to under-report tens of millions of dollars in pay that Ghosn was allegedly due to receive after his retirement.

Ghosn, whose long periods in detention prompted widespread criticism of Japan’s criminal justice system, dramatically jumped bail at the end of last year concealed inside a large audio equipment box before being flown out of Japan to Lebanon.

Ghosn’s absence is likely to intensify interest in his former aide’s trial at the Tokyo district court, which is expected to last about 10 months. “I deny the allegations. I was not involved in a criminal conspiracy,” he told the court on Tuesday.

Kelly, like his former boss, has consistently denied any wrongdoing, insisting no final agreement had been made on any post-retirement pay for Ghosn and therefore no disclosure was legally required.

Kelly, who has spent his time on bail at a Tokyo apartment, described Ghosn as an “extraordinary executive”, adding that he and other executives had only ever used lawful means to offer him incentives to stay at the company rather than seek a higher salary elsewhere.

“The evidence will show that I did not break the law,” said Kelly, who was hired by Nissan in the US in 1988. Dressed in a dark suit, red tie and wearing a surgical mask, Kelly, added: “Carlos Ghosn never got paid anything and he wasn’t promised anything.”

Kelly, who turned 64 on Tuesday, is accused of illegally concealing payments of about ¥9.2bn ($87m) between 2010-18 that had been promised to Ghosn on retirement. Nissan, which is on trial alongside Kelly, is not contesting the charges and is to pay a ¥2.4bn fine.

Despite problems gaining access to documents amassed by prosecutors, and confronted with a criminal justice system with a 99% conviction rate, Kelly’s head lawyer, Yoichi Kitamura, said he was “confident” his defence team could win the case.

Ghosn’s arrest in Tokyo in November 2018 marked the start of a quick fall from grace for a man once hailed a corporate saviour for rescuing Nissan from the brink of bankruptcy. The 66-year-old faced four charges relating to accusations that he under-reported his salary in financial documents and used Nissan funds for his personal benefit.

From his initial arrest moments after he stepped off a private jet in Tokyo in November 2018 and his re-arrest on three additional charges of financial misconduct, to his detention and bail conditions Ghosn portrayed himself as a victim – of “backstabbing” Nissan colleagues determined to loosen his grip on the company, and of Japan’s “hostage justice” system.

Ghosn has claimed a handful of Nissan executives were behind a conspiracy to have him arrested, allegedly over fears that he was planning to take Nissan into a merger with Renault that would weaken the Japanese company’s position.

“This is a conspiracy,” he said in April last year. “This is not about specific events, or greed or dictatorship. This is about a plot. This is about conspiracy. This is about backstabbing.”

The Japanese government has sought Ghosn’s extradition from Lebanon – he holds Lebanese, French and Brazilian passports – but it is unlikely that Beirut will comply.

Kelly’s wife, Dee, told reporters outside the courthouse that her husband had done nothing wrong. “I’m very proud of him,” she said, “He’s an honourable man.”



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