Four Turkish private jet pilots and an airline manager have been told that they can return home after spending six months behind bars for their role in helping the former Nissan chairman Carlos Ghosn flee Japan.
An Istanbul court ordered the release of the five men, who were arrested in January for helping carry the fugitive executive from Japan to Beirut, after the first day of their trial on Friday. The decision prompted joy from family members and supporters gathered outside the courtroom.
The five, who wore white overalls, gloves and masks as a precaution against coronavirus, will remain on trial for their part in a plot that has been described by US prosecutors as one of the “most brazen and well-orchestrated” escape acts in recent history. They face charges of people-smuggling.
Two air hostesses also face the lesser charge of failing to report a crime. The pair were arrested along with their colleagues in January but were released shortly afterwards pending trial.
All of the accused deny the charges against them.
The seven airline workers played key roles in Mr Ghosn’s daring scheme to escape standing trial in Japan, where he was facing charges of financial misconduct that he has consistently denied.
On Friday, Tokyo prosecutors also formally requested the extradition from the US of the two masterminds of the plot, which they believe involved the former Nissan chairman being smuggled past customs officers in a large black box.
Michael Taylor, a 59-year old former US Green Beret and his son, Peter, 27, were arrested in Boston in May, after returning to the US from Lebanon earlier in the year. Their lawyers have argued against Japan’s extradition request, claiming that “jumping bail” is not technically a crime in Japan.
“We will co-operate as much as possible (with US authorities) to ensure that the extradition process for the two individuals is carried out quickly,” the Tokyo District Public Prosecutors Office said in a statement.
All of the seven Turkish suspects worked for MNG Jet, a private jet charter company that is a subsidiary of a major Turkish conglomerate.
The company has admitted that its employees and two of the jets that it operated were used to whisk Mr Ghosn from Osaka to Istanbul in December last year, and then on to the safety of Lebanon, the country of his parents’ birth.
But MNG Jet has blamed a rogue employee, operations manager Okan Kosemen, for arranging the contract without the knowledge of senior management.
The pilots who flew the Bombardier Global Express that took Mr Ghosn from Osaka to Istanbul have insisted they were unaware that they were carrying a hidden passenger, according to an indictment prepared by prosecutors.
One of them, Bahri Kutlu Somek, told the court on Friday that it was normal for some passengers not to interact with the crew. “These planes are used by statesmen and very rich people,” he said. “Sometimes they want to talk to us, sometimes they close the door and ask not to be disturbed.”
The two pilots who flew a second jet, a Bombardier Challenger 300, which took the fugitive executive from Istanbul to Beirut, told prosecutors there was a man they hadn’t seen before on the flight, but stressed that they did not know who he was.
Mr Kosemen, the MNG Jet operations manager, told the court that he arranged the flights on behalf of a Beirut-based intermediary, Nicholas Meszaros, a private aviation executive, but said he had no knowledge of a secret passenger until midway through the operation.
He said he responded angrily to the revelation from Mr Meszaros that his jet was carrying Mr Ghosn. He said he tried to insist that the business executive went through passport control in Istanbul but that Mr Meszaros threatened him and his family. Mr Meszaros has denied those allegations as false.
An investigation of the suspects’ bank accounts concluded there was no unusual financial activity by the four pilots or the two air hostesses.
But the court heard that Mr Kosemen, who earned an annual salary at MNG Jet of $66,000, received payments of €216,800 and $66,900 in the six months to December 26 last year.
In his statement to prosecutors, Mr Kosemen said that the payments, which he had deposited in cash, were paid by an intermediary firm as a bonus for arranging flights to Venezuela. Investigators noted that he was unable to provide any supporting documents.
Mr Kosemen told the court he made no financial gain from Mr Ghosn’s escape, adding: “On the contrary, I lost money.”
Arguing for their release, lawyers for Mr Kosemen and the four pilots said that they had already served a significant amount of the time in jail that they would face if convicted on the charge of people-smuggling, which carries a prison sentence of three to eight years.
The five were expected to be released late on Friday. The trial will continue in December.