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Historian pleads guilty to denying Holocaust

Right-wing British historian David Irving was sentenced to three years in prison Monday after admitting to an Austrian court that he denied the Holocaust - a crime in the country where Adolf Hitler was born.

Irving, who pleaded guilty and then insisted during his one-day trial that he now acknowledged the Nazis' World War II slaughter of 6-million Jews, had faced up to 10 years behind bars. Before the verdict, Irving conceded he had erred in contending there were no gas chambers at the Auschwitz concentration camp.

Irving, stressing he relied only on primary sources, said he came across new information in the early 1990s from top Nazi officials - including personal documents belonging to Adolf Eichmann, who is often called the architect of the Holocaust - that led him to rethink certain previous assertions.

But despite his apparent epiphany, Irving, 67, maintained he had never questioned the Holocaust.

"I've never been a Holocaust denier and I get very angry when I'm called a Holocaust denier," he said.

The court convicted Irving after his guilty plea under a 1992 Austrian law, which applies to "whoever denies, grossly plays down, approves or tries to excuse the National Socialist genocide or other National Socialist crimes against humanity in a print publication, in broadcast or other media."

"The way the law is written, I didn't have any other choice but to plead guilty," Irving said.

Irving's lawyer said he would appeal the sentence.

"I consider the verdict a little too stringent. I would say it's a bit of a message trial," attorney Elmar Kresbach said.

State prosecutor Michael Klackl declined to comment on the verdict. In his closing arguments, however, he criticized Irving for "putting on a show" and for not admitting that the Nazis killed Jews in an organized and systematic manner.

Irving has been in custody since his November arrest on charges stemming from two speeches he gave in Austria in 1989 in which he was accused of denying the Nazis' extermination of 6-million Jews.

Irving, handcuffed and wearing a navy blue suit, arrived at the court carrying one of his most controversial books - Hitler's War, which challenges the extent of the Holocaust.

Irving's trial was held amid new - and fierce - debate over freedom of expression in Europe, where the printing and reprinting of unflattering cartoons of the prophet Mohammed has triggered violent protests worldwide.

"Of course it's a question of freedom of speech," Irving said.

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.

"He is everything but a historian. . . . He is a dangerous falsifier of history," Klackl said, calling Irving's statements an "abuse of freedom of speech."

Klackl said the Austrian law does not "hinder historical works."

"You have to look at each case individually," he said. "The point is, what is someone trying to do? It's the intent."

Kresbach, however, said people "should have a right to be wrong."

Irving has claimed previously that Adolf Hitler knew little if anything about the Holocaust, and he has been quoted as saying there was "not one shred of evidence" the Nazis carried out their "Final Solution" to exterminate the Jewish population on such a massive scale.

Irving, the author of nearly 30 books, has contended most of those who died at concentration camps such as Auschwitz succumbed to diseases such as typhus rather than execution.

In 2000, Irving sued American Holocaust scholar Deborah Lipstadt for libel in a British court, but lost. The presiding judge in that case, Charles Gray, wrote that Irving was "an active Holocaust denier . . . anti-Semitic and racist."

Irving has had numerous run-ins with the law over the years.

In 1992, a judge in Germany fined him the equivalent of $6,000 for publicly insisting the Nazi gas chambers at Auschwitz were a hoax.

Deidre Berger 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."

Information from Knight Ridder Newspapers was used in this report.