Scientist Gets Suspended Jail Term
By Park Si-soo
Disgraced stem cell researcher Hwang Woo-suk was convicted Monday of embezzling state and private funds and illegally buying human eggs for his research, but was cleared of fraud charges.
The Seoul Central District Court gave the 56-year-old scientist a two-year prison sentence suspended for three years, ending a three-year, four-month saga that dates back to his indictment in 2006.
His lawyer said Hwang was unlikely to lodge an appeal. But the prosecutors are said to be planning to file an appeal, which means that a legal battle over Hwang's case will likely drag out.
Hwang reported false breakthroughs in human stem cell research and had them published in the journal Science and other global research magazines in 2004 and 2005.
However, when it was revealed by a Korean research team that he had fabricated the experimental results, Korea's reputation as a leading scientific country in stem cell research was literally "devastated."
The journal, Science, retracted his papers following the finding and still remains cautious of publishing papers by Korean scientists.
Prosecutors didn't try to penalize Hwang for his test fabrications, leaving that to the discretion of the science community.
The prosecution sought a four-year jail term, but Presiding Judge Bae Ki-ryul reduced it, citing Hwang's dedication to the development of Korea's biotechnology, his lack of a criminal record and deep remorse.
Once touted as a global stem cell pioneer and a rock-star-like national hero, the ousted Seoul National University professor was indicted in 2006 on charges of embezzling more than 2 billion won (then $2 million) of research funds from the government and two domestic companies ― SK Group and Nonghyup ― using what the court deemed "fabricated" papers published in 2004 and 2005 in Science.
Two other charges related to whether he intentionally fabricated experimental results, and if he secured human eggs from donors in exchange for financial benefits, which is illegal in Korea.
"He embezzled nearly 830 million won of funds by money laundering with borrowed-name bank accounts," Bae said.
"The accused claimed the money in question was spent for research-related purposes. But there is a lack of evidence to back this up."
But the judge cleared Hwang of fraud charges related to money from the two private companies saying they sponsored the scientist without any expectation that they would benefit from the donation in the future.
"The funds were given to him voluntarily without any specific guideline on its usage," the judge said, meaning his private use of it is not punishable.
Hwang was also found guilty of buying the human ova.
"Under the law, any types of egg trade are banned. Hwang covered the costs of harvesting ova from the donors, which is illegal," the judge said.
Following the ruling, Hwang hurriedly left the court packed with nearly 200 of his supporters from around the country.
His lawyer, Yoo Chul-min, told reporters it's too early to decide whether to appeal the ruling. But the lawyer hinted that the scientist does not want further debate in the courtroom.
Hwang had been the only Korean scientist allowed to carry out research into human stem cells. But the government stripped him of his license in 2006, citing his "ethical problems."
With funds mostly from the private sector, he is now doing work on animal cloning at Sooam Biotech Research Foundation in Gyeonggi Province.