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TOKYO: Former Nissan executive Greg Kelly was handed a six-month suspended sentence on Thursday by a Tokyo court over allegations he helped disgraced auto tycoon Carlos Ghosn attempt to conceal income.

The 65-year-old American was detained at the same time as Ghosn in November 2018, but the former Nissan chief jumped bail and fled to Lebanon the following year, leaving Kelly alone to face charges.

Prosecutors had sought two years in prison for Kelly, accusing him of helping Ghosn under-report his income to the tune of 9.1 billion yen ($79 million) between 2010 and 2018.

But the court found him not guilty on the charges for the financial years 2010 to 2016, and guilty for the financial year 2017, handing down a six-month prison sentence suspended for three years.

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The soft-spoken American has always denied the claims, and the trial has been closely watched in Japan and abroad, with the US ambassador to Tokyo saying the case was a top priority.

Kelly's team argued the proposed post-retirement payments were never agreed and there were merely exploratory discussions about a "legal way" to keep Ghosn in the fold after his tenure and prevent him from joining a competitor.

But judge Kenji Shimizu ruled that by fiscal year 2017 Kelly "was aware that there was an unpaid remuneration and the court recognises that there was a conspiracy (between Kelly) with Ghosn and (Nissan executive Toshiaki) Ohnuma."

Some have viewed Kelly as little more than a scapegoat in a case that centred around Ghosn, whose audacious escape hidden in an audio-equipment box in December 2019 left Japanese prosecutors red-faced.

"Kelly was arrested with the expectation that he could be 'turned' to testify against Ghosn," said Stephen Givens, a business lawyer in Tokyo who has followed the case.

"When Ghosn escaped to Beirut, the prosecutors were left with a weak, free-standing case against Kelly," he told AFP.

'A long three years'

Nissan had pleaded guilty in a separate case, and was ordered Thursday to pay a fine of 200 million yen ($1.7 million).

Kelly's lawyers previously said they would appeal any guilty verdict, even if the sentence was suspended.

Kelly has been in Japan since his detention in 2018 and has been joined in Tokyo by his wife, who had to enrol in Japanese lessons to secure a visa to stay in the country.

The verdict does mean he should now be able to leave Japan for the first time in three years, which was welcomed by US ambassador to Tokyo Rahm Emanuel.

"We are relieved that the legal process has concluded, and Mr and Mrs Kelly can return home," he said in a statement.

"While this has been a long three years for the Kelly family, this chapter has come to an end," he added, offering no comment on the guilty verdict itself.

Japanese prosecutors have a close to 99 percent conviction rate in cases that go to trial, though experts said the outcome in Kelly's case was hard to predict because it was the first of its kind in the country.

For his part, Ghosn, who faced several additional financial misconduct charges, has always insisted he and Kelly are innocent and that Japanese prosecutors worked to help Nissan push him out in a "palace coup".

"If he's guilty, many Japanese should also be in prison," he said from Beirut during an online press conference in December.

There has been other fallout from the case, with two Americans who helped Ghosn flee the country extradited from the US to Japan and sentenced last year to between 20 months and two years in prison.

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