French prosecutors have issued an international arrest warrant for Carlos Ghosn and four people linked to an Omani auto dealer following an investigation into whether they helped divert funds from carmaker Renault to its former chair and chief executive for personal use.

The warrants were issued against Ghosn, who was the architect of Renault’s alliance with Nissan, and the current owners and former managers of Suhail Bahwan Automobiles, a distributor for the car companies in Oman, the prosecutor’s office in Nanterre said in a statement on Friday.

Investigating magistrates issued the international warrant as they consider whether to include Ghosn as a formal suspect in the probe, a spokesperson said, meaning the case is being stepped up. That judicial step would normally be taken on French soil.

The warrant served as a way of notifying Ghosn that he was wanted for questioning as a suspect, she added, after he previously received French investigators in Beirut as a witness in the case.

Ghosn, who holds French, Lebanese and Brazilian citizenship, was arrested in Japan in late 2018 on charges of financial misconduct at Nissan, which he denied. He later escaped to Lebanon, where he is protected from extradition to Japan and France, meaning he will not undergo a criminal trial in Tokyo. Interpol had issued a “wanted” notice for Ghosn and his wife Carole in 2020 at the request of Japanese investigators.

The former Renault boss had not been notified of the French arrest warrant and learned about it through the media, a spokesperson for Ghosn said. The Wall Street Journal first reported the warrant.

Ghosn was “surprised” by the move by prosecutors as “judges know he is not authorised to leave Lebanon” and has always collaborated with French investigators, the spokesperson added. Lebanese authorities have Ghosn’s passports, as a means of protecting him against extradition.

French prosecutors have been looking into the alleged misuse of funds at Renault since 2019, investigating the role of the Omani car distributor and financial flows between the company and Ghosn.

According to internal investigations by Renault and Nissan, some of this money is alleged to have been diverted, including to purchase a luxury yacht through a company owned by Ghosn’s wife, people with knowledge of the matter have previously said.

The prosecutors in Nanterre, west of Paris, are also looking into spending on lavish parties held in the grounds of the palace of Versailles. French investigating judges have travelled to Beirut to question Ghosn over the allegations. The former car executive has previously said he welcomed the investigation as part of a bid to clear his name.

The people targeted by the French prosecutors’ warrant include billionaire businessman Suhail Bahwan, whose Omani conglomerate owns the dealership, a person familiar with the matter said. Bahwan could not be reached for comment through his company.

Ghosn and his lawyers have previously denied any wrongdoing linked to the Omani business. They have rejected allegations of embezzlement and described the dealer incentive payments under scrutiny as legitimate rewards for top performing dealers, which were in any case not handled at chief executive level by Ghosn.

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