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South Korean Supreme Court confirms Hwang’s sentence

Posted on behalf of David Cyranoski and Soo Bin Park.

The South Korean Supreme Court has upheld a 2010 ruling that sentences disgraced cloning expert Woo Suk Hwang to a one-and-a-half-year prison term for embezzlement and violation of the country’s bioethics law. The term comes with a two-year probation, however, and if Hwang does not commit a crime during that period, he will not have to serve jail time at all. This is the final judgment on a trial that started in 2006 and reached its first verdict in 2009 after 43 hearings involving 60 witnesses.

In a separate judgment also handed down yesterday — one that might be more troubling for Hwang — the Supreme Court overturned an earlier decision that would have forced Seoul National University (SNU) to reinstate Hwang.

Hwang received a doctorate degree in veterinary medicine from SNU in 1982 and had been a professor there since 1986 (see ‘Timeline of controversy‘). In March 2006, in the wake of the finding that his team had fabricated data in the two human therapeutic cloning papers and Hwang’s admission that he had ordered some of that fabrication, SNU fired Hwang. (Other members of the team, including as Curie Ahn and BC Lee, retained their positions.)

In 2006 Hwang sued to get his position back. He lost that initial court battle, but in November 2011 a Seoul court of appeals decided in favour of Hwang, saying that firing him was excessive given uncertainty over details of Hwang’s role in the fraud.

The Supreme Court has now annulled that judgment, leaving Hwang without claim to the professorship. The court noted Hwang’s responsibility as leader of the group that fabricated data and his role in ordering some of that fabrication. It added that such discipline is necessary to restore the public’s confidence in the university.

Hwang, who is now the head of increasingly visible animal-cloning institute in Seoul, did receive happier news earlier this month when the US patent office granted his application for a patent on methods used to create cloned human embryonic stem cells. All of stem cell lines that Hwang claimed to have made using that process were found to be faked.

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