Former Nissan Motor chairman Carlos Ghosn, one of the automotive industry’s most recognisable figure, has told Nikkei in an exclusive interview that he had “no doubt” that the criminal charges against him were the result of “plot and treason” by Nissan executives who are opposing his plan for deeper integration between Renault and its two Japanese alliance partners.

Speaking on the 10th floor of the Tokyo Detention House, dressed in a black fleece jacket and grey sweatpants, Ghosn – now visibly thinner after having lost around 10 kg since his arrest on November 19, 2018 – acknowledged that “there was a plan to integrate” Renault, Nissan and Mitsubishi Motors. The plans had been discussed with Nissan President Hiroto Saikawa in September, he added.

In his first media interview since being detained, Ghosn claimed that he wanted to include Mitsubishi Motors CEO Osamu Masuko in the talks, but “Saikawa wanted it one-on-one.” Once the three automakers were more closely integrated, Ghosn wanted to ensure there would be “autonomy under one holding company,” he said, adding that this plan was in line with how he had operated the alliance in past years.

Several allies of Ghosn’s have argued that some Nissan executives feared a further concentration of power under his leadership, prompting them to cooperate with Tokyo prosecutors. Ghosn’s 19-year leadership at Nissan has also been labelled as a dictatorship, to which he dismissed, saying this was a narrative created by rivals “to distort reality” for the “purpose of getting rid of me,” he said.

Furthermore, analysts have repeatedly speculated that Nissan executives were uncomfortable about the possibility of Renault and Ghosn seeking full control of the Japanese company. Nissan, which sells more vehicles than Renault, only has a 15% non-voting stake in the French company. Renault holds more than 40% of Nissan. However, a Nissan spokesman said that “the sole cause of this chain of events is the misconduct led by Ghosn.”

Ghosn has been in detention without bail for over 70 days since Tokyo prosecutors arrested him on allegations of financial misconduct. He was charged with underreporting his salary over several years, and aggravated breach of trust for allegedly using Nissan to shoulder his personal trading losses from foreign exchange contracts.

The breach-of-trust charges relate to the US$14.7 million (RM60.15 million) in payments to a company run by Saudi businessman Khaled al-Juffali. He denied the accusations and claimed “the executive in charge of the region signed [the approval].” The payment was made from Ghosn’s “CEO reserve,” a pot of money that he was free to decide how to spend. He said the “CEO reserve is not a black box” and “four officers signed” for the payment to al-Juffali.

There were also allegations of Ghosn receiving 7.82 million euros (RM36.8 million) in improper payments through Nissan-Mitsubishi B.V., a Netherlands-based joint venture between the two firms. Ghosn countered, stating that the venture was established for “synergy and not for payment,” adding that any claims of improper payments were simply a “distortion of reality.”

As for his luxury properties in Rio de Janeiro and Beirut, Nissan claims that the purchases of the homes were improperly paid for by a subsidiary company, although Ghosn objects, stating that the purchases were approved by the legal department. Pointing to a former loyalist and long-time executive in the legal department, Ghosn said: “Hari Nada has done all this.” He justified the houses on the grounds that he “needed a safe place where [he] can work and receive people in both Brazil and Lebanon.”

[Have I] done [something] inappropriate? I am not a lawyer, I don’t know the interpretation of [such] facts,” Ghosn said, showing his frustration over Nissan’s internal investigation. “These are known by everybody, why didn’t they tell me?”

Ghosn’s second bail request was rejected on January 22, with prosecutors fearing that he might tamper with evidence or possibly flee. “I won’t flee, I will defend [myself],” Ghosn said. “All the evidence is with Nissan, and Nissan forbids all employees to talk to me.”

After his arrest, the Brazilian-born Frenchman had plans to attend a Renault board meeting in Paris, explaining his position, and holding a news conference. But his prolonged detention in a Tokyo jail stifled those plans.

Ghosn has since been removed from his position as chairman of Nissan and Mitsubishi, and recently resigned as chairman and CEO of Renault, with former Michelin chief Jean-Dominique Senard appointed to fill the role. An extraordinary general meeting of shareholders scheduled in mid-April is exited to remove Ghosn as a director of Nissan Motor.

The three companies which form the alliance are expected to revisit how it is operated in the absence of Ghosn’s leadership. “I cannot speculate about the future of the alliance,” Ghosn said. The French government, Renault’s largest shareholder, has previously requested Ghosn make the relationship between the two automakers “irreversible.”

Following Ghosn’s arrest, France also informed Tokyo of an intention to press ahead with integration. Saikawa, in contrast, has insisted there is “no need for now to discuss [it].” When asked about life in the detention centre, Ghosn said “there is up and down.” As for his health, he simply said he was “doing fine.”