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Socrates acquitted in ancient trial re-run

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Judges narrowly acquitted Socrates, the philosopher whose teachings earned him a death sentence in ancient Athens, in a retrial Friday billed as a lesson for modern times of revolution and crisis.

Socrates spoke himself at his trial in the fourth century BC, but this time in his absence, a panel of 10 US and European judges heard pleas by top Greek and foreign lawyers at the event at the Onassis Foundation in Athens.

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Judges then voted on whether he was guilty on the ancient charges of evil-doing, impiety and corrupting the young.

In 399 BC, Socrates was made to die by drinking hemlock poison after being convicted by a jury of hundreds of Athenians. Unrepentant, he had insulted the judges at his trial and cheekily asked to be rewarded for his actions.

The modern judges spared him that dishonour this time, with an even vote — five guilty and five not guilty, meaning that under ancient Athenian law he was not convicted.

Socrates’ method of sceptical inquiry, preserved by his disciple Plato and other ancient authors, questioned conventional wisdom on sensitive notions of politics, religion and morality and earned him powerful enemies.

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He was branded an enemy of democracy, accused of treason in favour of the Spartan enemy, and of influencing a violent uprising against the Athenian republic by a group of oligarchs that included some of his pupils.

“Socrates comes before us feigning humility, yet demonstrating arrogance,” said Loretta Preska, a New York district judge who presided at Friday’s trial and voted to convict him.

“He is a dangerous subversive.”

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Pleading earlier in Socrates’ defence, prominent French lawyer Patrick Simon said: “An opinion is not a crime. Socrates was searching for the truth.

He added: “My client has one fault: he likes to poke fun and is fiercely ironic. By acquitting him, you will show how solid and reliable democracy is.”

Versed in Socratic literature, the legal brains came from Britain, France, Germany, Greece, Switzerland and the United States.

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“In order not to complicate this trial unnecessarily, penalty will not be decided,” Preska said. The prosecution and judges who voted to convict said they did not favour the death penalty.

At an earlier enactment of the trial in New York last year, Socrates was likewise acquitted.

More than 800 people bought tickets for Friday’s event, which was also watched online at www.sgt.gr by web users who could cast their verdict.

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Organisers said the issues of democracy and free speech raised by Socrates’ trial was resonant for global politics in light of recent uprisings and crises.

“The issues that we will be debating here are global issues and are very pertinent,” Anthony Papadimitriou, a lawyer and president of the foundation who spoke for the prosecution, said ahead of the trial.

“For instance, they are closely related to the Arab Spring.”

Organisers said the event was also good for Greece in its current crisis, as it awaits a second general election on June 17 that could determine whether it stays in the eurozone.

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Radical left-wing party Syriza under its leader Antonis Tsipras, who has threatened to renege on an international bailout agreement made to rescue Greece from financial collapse, is leading in the opinion polls.

“Greece might be going through a difficult period, but we believe that we shall overcome as we have overcome the Romans, the Turks, the Germans and hemlock,” Papadimitriou joked.

“I also hope that we shall overcome the wisdom of Greek voters.”

[Daniel Nicholas Chodowiecki: The death of Socrates 18th – 19th century.]

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