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Case Against UC Davis Researcher Reduced

Courts: Asian Americans have rallied around Bin Han, originally accused by campus authorities of felony trade espionage.


WOODLAND, Calif. — In a case that has rallied California's Asian community, the high-profile trade secrets prosecution of a Chinese American researcher at UC Davis was reduced Tuesday from a felony to a misdemeanor embezzlement charge.

As Asian American and UC employees union protesters gathered outside the Yolo County Courthouse, Superior Court Judge Thomas E. Warriner said at a hearing that the state failed to prove that 20 vials of human protein material allegedly stolen by researcher Bin Han, a naturalized American citizen from China, were worth the $400 necessary to constitute a felony charge.

The ruling marked another setback for UC Davis authorities who had originally accused Han of stealing invaluable scientific research materials with the intention of exporting them to China.

After being fired from his $30,000-a-year research job in a Davis lab, where he had worked for 12 years, Han was arrested May 17 and held without bail in a Yolo County isolation cell for more than two weeks.

The state authorities, claiming that Han posed a risk of flight, also confiscated his U.S. passport.

But the trade espionage charges were dropped by the Yolo County district attorney's office in June after it was discovered that protein materials similar to those allegedly taken by Han were readily available in the world market. Tuesday's ruling by Warriner that the materials in question were not even that valuable knocked the case against Han down another notch.

Asian American activists cited parallels with the botched 1999 federal espionage case against Los Alamos National Laboratories nuclear scientist Wen Ho Lee. The activists contend that the Han case represents another example of suspicions and prejudice against Asians, particularly Chinese Americans, involved in scientific research.

"Would a French American or a Canadian American be considered a flight risk?" asked Ivy Lee, a retired university sociology professor who is president of the Sacramento-based Chinese American Political Action Committee, one of the groups that has taken up the Han cause.

Several protesters paraded outside the courthouse carrying signs that said: "I'm Asian American. I must be a flight risk. Deny me bail too."

Han, a soft-spoken medical researcher from the western Chinese city of Xian who lives in Davis with his wife and two school-age children, has pleaded not guilty to all the charges. He claims the dispute with the university began with petty rivalries over where his name should be placed in a published research article.

Han said he put the vials of protein material in his home freezer, where he forgot about them because he was in a rush to pick up his children at school.

Following the dispute over authorship of the research paper, Han said he was told by his research supervisors on May 13 that the grant under which his work was conducted was being discontinued.

Han, who has filed a formal grievance with the university over his dismissal, said he fired off an angry e-mail the next day to Dr. Ivan Schwab, his supervisor at the UC Davis ophthalmology department. In the e-mail, he claimed he had been asked to participate in human corneal research for two years that had not received full Federal Drug Administration approval.

After that, Han claims, he was viewed suspiciously by some research associates as a whistle-blower. Three days later, he was arrested at his home in a midnight raid by UC Davis police.

"What began as a big espionage case has now been reduced to the level of petty theft," said Han's attorney, Stewart Katz. The judge set a hearing on the misdemeanor charges next week.

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