The South Korean cloning scientist who rose to hero status and crashed back to earth over allegations of fraudulent research has been convicted on fraud and embezzling charges. However, a South Korean judge went easy on his sentence, saying the doctor has changed his ways.
The Seoul court ruled Monday that South Korean genetic researcher Hwang Woo-seok "was guilty of fabrication." The court also ruled Hwang had diverted grant money for his own undeclared research projects, and had violated the country's bioethics laws by purchasing human eggs for research.
However, the court ruled Hwang has since "repented," and he received a sentence of three years probation, avoiding prison time if he does not violate laws during that period. The ruling is a defeat for prosecution lawyers, who want Hwang sent to prison for four years.
Hwang rocketed to fame in 2004, when his team claimed to have successfully cloned human embryonic stem cells. Stem cells are the basic building blocks of all human tissue, and the reported discovery raised hopes for imminent breakthroughs in treating a wide range of diseases, as well as producing genetically tailored replacements for damaged human organs and tissue.
For a period of months, Hwang was the public embodiment of South Korean national pride as an emerging scientific hub. An investigative panel at Seoul National University, his employer, later accused him of falsifying key data in his lab reports. He resigned in disgrace, and the South Korean government revoked his right to work in stem cell research.
Despite his downfall, Hwang continues to have passionate allies in South Korea. Hyun Sang-hwan is a biotech researcher with Sooam, a leading company closely affiliated with Hwang. He says he is pleased with Monday's verdict.
He says the most important thing is that the court agreed Dr. Hwang did not solicit corporate funds using fraudulent research. He says he hopes an appeal will overturn the court's opinion that Hwang used public money for anything other than officially approved research.
Prosecutors also plan to appeal the case.
Hwang himself has always maintained his innocence, saying he was deceived by research partners. He offered no comment on Monday's verdict.