Irving gets three years' jail in Austria for Holocaust denial

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The Independent Online

The 67-year-old was sentenced to three years in jail by an Austrian judge for denying, in two speeches he made 16 years ago, the existence of the gas chambers of the Second World War and the murder of six million Jews.

"I am deeply shocked and will appeal," a stunned Irving told reporters as he was bundled out of court by armed riot police officers. There was uproar from his supporters. "Stay strong, David!" shouted Richard Edmunds, who had flown over from London for Irving's day in court. "Good luck to you!" He too was bundled out of court.

Irving was not wearing his £2,700 pinstripe Savile Row suit as he had promised. The shabby navy blazer he did choose only reinforced the fact that this was a day when nothing would go right for him.

With a P G Wodehouse novel stuffed in his pocket to stave off boredom, he brandished a copy of his book, Hitler's War, for the ruck of photographers and television crews outside the court. "I've learnt a lot during the last 17 years," he declared to the reporters. "I've changed my views."

But, despite blustering optimistically into the high-ceilinged courtroom, he was soon thrust on the defensive by a particularly stern-tongued judge, Peter Liebtreu. And his admission that he had changed his mind was not enough to save him. The eight-man jury took less than two hours to deliver a unanimous verdict that the British revisionist historian should be imprisoned. The judge then ruled that three years, rather than the maximum sentence of 10 years, was appropriate.

It was still a body blow for the pale and tired-looking defendant. "Do you understand your sentence, Mr Irving?" the judge asked. "I'm not sure I do," Irving replied.

The judgment hung on whether the jury would believe his show of remorse and his dramatic U-turn. "I'm not a Holocaust denier," Irving had even told reporters as the court opened.

The charges stem from two lectures given in Austria in November 1989. Mr Irving said the gas chambers at Auschwitz extermination camp did not exist, that Hitler held a "protective hand over the Jews" and that the Holocaust was a myth.

Judge Liebtreu examined statements Irving had made to two audiences of far-right extremists and supporters in Leoben and Vienna in 1989. His stern, often mocking, cross-examination soon forced Irving to abandon some of his more controversial statements. Judge Liebtreu read out part of one of Irving's speeches in which he claimed that Holocaust witnesses were "cases for psychiatric treatment".

"Do you still believe this?" Judge Liebtreu asked. The defendant was silent for a moment. Eventually, he replied: "I regret that formulation."

"Do you take it back?" the judge persevered. "I regret it," Irving replied.

Irving said sorry and expressed regret for many other statements. He accepted now, he said, that there had been gas chambers in Auschwitz and that millions of Jews had indeed been killed by the Nazis, but he continued to play with numbers. "Last week, on the occasion of the Dresden bombing," he said, "I knelt in my cell and prayed to remember the 100,000 civilians killed there."

The accepted historical casualty figure is closer to 35,000. Irving has traditionally exaggerated the numbers of Germans killed in the war and played down the numbers of Holocaust victims. Even yesterday, pleading for his freedom, he stressed "the figure of six million killed Jews is just symbolic".

The state prosecutor, Michael Klackl, remained unimpressed. He called Irving a "dangerous falsifier of history" and a man who often played the role of a repentant sinner.

"You must remember," he told the court, "David Irving only uses words, but these words are used by right-wing extremists to give them an ideological position." Summing up, he said: "Mr Irving might have said he has changed his views, but that has all been a show for you."

Irving's defence lawyer, Elmar Kresbach, told the jury that the defendant was a self-made man who, in order to be successful, had to provoke, and in doing so, had stepped over the boundaries of taste. "He is not the youngest of men. He has a sick wife at home and he is a foreigner," Mr Kresbach said. "Is the man before you really dangerous, or is he a lonely and somewhat desperate 67-year-old who has said some terrible things?"

Irving, who has been in jail since his arrest on 11 November last year, told the court he has an annual income of £57,000 and draws a £20-a-week pension. He admitted that the prospect of a prolonged jail sentence was worrying. "I have a 12-year-old daughter," he said. "I have great worries about the future."

Incarceration in Vienna's Josefstadt prison will mean a harsh change of lifestyle for Irving, who complained recently to an Italian newspaper that his Mayfair living room was at least twice the size of the dining room in which 70 prisoners had to eat each day. He said that all he wanted to do was to go home to his "sick wife and daughter".

At lunch in the court canteen, one Holocaust survivor was eating a plate of spaghetti. He talked about the spell he survived in Treblinka and the 17 family members he lost during the war. "I am here because I am a part of the history this man denies," he said. "Even if they sentence him to a one euro fine for what he has said didn't happen, it will be a judgment which will go down in history."

By evening, Irving was a broken man, his career at an end. Distraught and stunned, he was escorted from the courtroom to return to his 19th-century cell.

Why freedom of speech has never been an absolute right

By Robert Verkaik

The right to freedom of speech has never been an absolute right to say anything.

Yesterday's conviction and sentence of David Irving also demonstrates that the limits on freedom of expression can depend on where the speaker makes their comments.

In Germany and Austria, where the Holocaust was dreamt up, their criminal laws make it an offence to deny that that historical event took place. There are few other democracies that have felt it necessary to enact these draconian laws. Irving made his statements 17 years ago.

In Britain we still rely on principles of criminal law to bring cases to court. This month the Muslim cleric Abu Hamza was sentenced to seven years for inciting racial hatred and Nick Griffin, the leader of the BNP, was unsuccessfully prosecuted for making accusations about murdered teenager Stephen Lawrence.

But in the last year the Government has cited the need to bring in more laws to curtail our freedom of speech. We are moving closer to Austria where a personal opinion of a historical event can not only lead to a jail sentence but attracts the oxygen of publicity to a very odious point of view.