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British historian gets 3-year prison sentence for denying Holocaust

VIENNA, Austria—British historian David Irving was sentenced to three years in prison Monday on charges that he denied the Holocaust, just hours after he admitted that he'd been wrong to doubt the systematic murder of millions of Jews.

To supporters, and even some critics, the other crime on trial was the oppression of free speech.

"The way the law is written, I didn't have any other choice but to plead guilty," Irving said. He'd faced as many as 10 years in prison on the charges.

Irving, 67, heads to prison for statements he made during a lecture in Austria in 1989, when he said that the gas chambers of Auschwitz were a fairy tale. In addition, he's known for having said that the number of Jews murdered by Nazis was greatly exaggerated, that most Jews died of diseases during World War II, and that until 1943 Adolf Hitler had never heard of the Holocaust.

At least nine European countries, as well as Israel, have national laws that make it a crime to deny or diminish the reality of the Holocaust.

Before and during court on Monday, Irving acknowledged that he'd been wrong. He said "history is a constantly growing tree" and that documents he'd studied since 1989, especially the files of Adolf Eichmann (often called the architect of the Holocaust), had made it clear to him that "millions of Jews were murdered."

Irving was the author of more than 20 books before becoming known as one of the world's foremost anti-Semitic researchers. He once famously sued American historian Deborah Lipstadt for libel after she wrote that he was a Holocaust denier. He lost that case; the judge called him an "anti-Semite and racist" who twisted history, and the legal fees of 2 million pounds broke him. Still, Lipstadt told the BBC on Monday that while Irving's a poor historian, censorship doesn't work.

"He should be released to return to London and the sound of one hand clapping," she said.

Irving's attorney sought leniency for his client based on pity, who'll turn 68 on March 24, based on pity.

"This lecture took place 17 years ago," Elmar Kresbach said. "He is an English citizen. He doesn't live in Austria and he is 68 years old. He is not really dangerous, especially not to Austria."

Others around Europe don't share that opinion. Prosecutor Michael Klackl said Irving's research tried to convince others that the worst crime in world history never happened.

While Irving is considered the most prominent Holocaust denier, just northwest in Mannheim, Germany, 66-year-old Canadian historian Ernst Zuendel is into the third week of his trial. He's also accused of denying the Holocaust and of inciting racial hatred.

Zuendel's trial has been more colorful. Neo-Nazis have applauded him loudly, called the judge "Roland Freisler" after the Nazi judge who sentenced Hitler opponents to death, and have even sung the banned first verse of the German national anthem ("Deutschland, Deutschland, ueber alles").

Zuendel faces up to five years in prison for allegedly promoting neo-Nazi materials and revisionist Holocaust theories in his books.

Deidre Berger, the managing director of the American Jewish Committee office in Berlin, which tracks anti-Semitism, said it's important not to underestimate the seriousness of these crimes.

"They should not merely be dismissed as idiots," she said. "They're dangerous men."

Irving, in particular, "has led a life that is all about denying the Holocaust," she said. "These are important trials, especially at a time when anti-Semitism in Europe and around the world is on the rise again."

Rob Boudewijn, a European issues expert for the Dutch research center Clingendael Institute, said that while it may be difficult for Americans to understand, many Europeans do believe that free speech ends with Holocaust denial.

"Denying the Holocaust is denying our history, and the pain of that time and the fear that it could happen again is too much here," he said.

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(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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