Austria considers Holocaust denial charge for Irving

David Irving, the disgraced British historian, was being held in an Austrian jail last night while state prosecutors there decided whether to bring charges against him for allegedly denying aspects of the Holocaust during a visit to the country 16 years ago.

The Austrian interior ministry said that the revisionist historian, who was convicted of Holocaust denial at a spectacular trial in Britain five years ago, was arrested after a routine check on a motorway in the southern province of Styria last Friday.

He had been on his way to address a students' club in Vienna when he was stopped. It was not clear whether his presence in Austria was linked to a meeting of far-right politicians in Vienna this week.

Rudolf Golia, a ministry spokesman, said that Irving was being held in a prison in the southern city of Graz. He said he had been arrested on the basis of a warrant issued in 1989. Under Austrian law, denying the Holocaust is a crime punishable by a maximum 20-year jail term.

Irving, 67, has faced repeated allegations of spreading anti-Semitic and racist propaganda. He is the author of 30 books on the Nazi era including Hitler's War, which challenges the extent of the Holocaust. He has also appeared as a speaker at far-right political rallies in Germany, where he is now banned from speaking.

His personal website claimed yesterday that Irving had been on his way to address a group of "courageous students" on the subject of a deal reached between the Nazi official Adolf Eichmann and Hungarian Jewish leaders during the Second World War under which lorries were apparently bartered for Jews.

The website claimed that "Austrian political police" had tracked down the "expert on the Third Reich" by tapping his phone and intercepting his e-mails. It said that Irving had managed to visit his friend Rolf Hochhuth, a controversial German playwright whom he had not been able to meet for more than 20 years because of travel bans imposed on the author.

State prosecutors in Graz said it was unclear whether there were sufficient legal grounds to continue holding Irving as the offences, allegedly committed during a speaking tour in Austria in 1989, took place so long ago. They said they were likely to reach a decision next week.

Irving was disgraced at a libel trial in London in 2000 when he attempted to sue the American academic Deborah Lipstadt for having described him as a "Holocaust denier" in her 1994 book, Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory. Irving claimed during the trial that the Nazi gas chambers were "completely fictitious". The British judge cleared Mrs Lipstadt and described Irving as an "active Holocaust denier " who was "an anti-Semitic racist who associates with right-wing extremists who promote neo-Nazism".

Irving faced £3m in costs as a result of his court defeat and was forced to sell his Mayfair home. He has since been reduced to selling his books on the internet and going on speaking tours in the United States where Holocaust denial does not constitute a criminal offence.

At his trial, Irving insisted that he had never claimed that the Holocaust did not occur. He maintained that he had simply questioned the number of Jews killed under Hitler's regime and denied that they had been systematically exterminated in gas chambers in Nazi death camps such as Auschwitz.

History of the history man

* Set up Samisdat Publishing in the 1970s, one of the world's main distributors of Nazi propaganda

* In 1992, a judge in Germany fined Irving £4,000 for publicly insisting the Nazi gas chambers at Auschwitz were a hoax.

* He sued Lipstadt for libel for calling him a Holocaust denier but his lawsuit was dismissed in 2000 by a British court, which ruled that Irving was anti-Semitic and racist and misrepresented historical information

* His film, 'The Search for the Truth in History', triggered protests in Australia that led a film festival to cancel a screening.

* He has questioned the use of large-scale gas chambers to exterminate the Jews, and has claimed that the numbers of those who perished are far lower than those generally accepted. He also contends that most Jews who died at Auschwitz did so from diseases such as typhus, not gas poisoning.

* Author of 30 books on the Nazi era including Hitler's War ­ and he is banned from Germany