By Ezgi Erkoyun
ISTANBUL (Reuters) - Seven suspects went on trial in Turkey on Friday over their alleged involvement in former Nissan boss Carlos Ghosn's dramatic escape from Japan to Lebanon via Istanbul at the end of last year.
Ghosn, once a titan of the global auto industry, had been arrested in Japan in late 2018 and charged with underreporting his salary and using company funds for personal purposes, charges he denies.
The ousted chairman of the alliance of Renault, Nissan Motor Co and Mitsubishi Motors Corp had been awaiting his trial under house arrest in Japan when he made a dramatic escape in December to Beirut, his childhood home.
An executive from Turkish private jet operator MNG Jet and four pilots were detained in early January soon after Ghosn's escape and charged with migrant smuggling, a sentence carrying a maximum sentence of eight years in jail.
They appeared in white protective overalls, masks and gloves as a measure against the coronavirus, as the court in Istanbul began hearing their defence. Two flight attendants, charged with failing to report a crime - a charge carrying a sentence of up to one year - were also there.
The first defendant to speak was a pilot on the Osaka-Istanbul flight, Noyan Pasin, who denied the charge.
Prosecutors, in their indictment, had said MNG Jet operations manager Okan Kosemen - who is one of the seven on trial - knew before the Osaka flight that Ghosn would be on board and would transfer to Beirut.
Kosemen, who also pleaded not guilty, said in court on Friday he was only told via phone about Ghosn's presence mid-flight from Osaka and cooperated under duress.
The prosecution said Kosemen used WhatsApp to communicate with pilots before, during and after the Osaka-Istanbul flight, using terms like "luggage" and "consignment" to refer to Ghosn.
The five other suspects also deny the charges, according to the indictment.
SAGA SHAKES AUTO WORLD
According to the indictment, Kosemen told prosecutors a price of $175,000 was agreed for the flight with a Lebanese broker and paid into MNG Jet's bank account.
At the time of the incident, MNG Jet said Kosemen acted without the knowledge of the company and it had filed a criminal complaint for the illegal use of its aircraft.
Japan has formally asked the United States to extradite two Americans - a former Green Beret and his son - who also stand accused of helping Ghosn flee Japan. They were arrested in Massachusetts in May.
The Ghosn saga has shaken the global auto industry, at one point jeopardising the Renault-Nissan alliance which he masterminded, and increased scrutiny of Japan's judicial system.
Renault and Nissan have struggled to recover profitability following his tenure, during which both automakers say Ghosn focused too much on expanding sales and market share, leading to falling margins.
Turkish police detained the suspects on Jan. 2 and an interior ministry official was cited at the time as saying Turkish border police were not notified about Ghosn's arrival, and neither his entry nor his exit were registered.
(Additional reporting by Naomi Tajitsu in Tokyo; Writing by Daren Butler; Editing by Jonathan Spicer and Pravin Char)