VIENNA, Austria - 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 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.
"I made a mistake when I said there were no gas chambers at Auschwitz," Irving testified, at one point expressing sorrow "for all the innocent people who died during the Second World War."
Irving, stressing he only relied on primary sources, said he came across new information in the early 1990's from top Nazi officials — including personal documents belonging to Adolf Eichmann — 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.
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 appeared shocked as the sentence was read out. Moments later, an elderly man identifying himself as a family friend called out "Stay strong, David! Stay strong!" before he was escorted from the courtroom.
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.
Throughout the day, Irving sat quietly and attentively in the stifling courtroom.
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 Muhammad has triggered violent protests worldwide.
"Of course it's a question of freedom of speech," Irving said. "The law is an ass."
The court convicted Irving after his guilty plea under the 1992 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."
Austria was Hitler's birthplace and once was run by the Nazis.
"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."
The verdict was welcomed by the Simon Wiesenthal Center, which also highlighted the issue of freedom of speech.
"While Irving's rants would not have led to legal action in the United States, it is important that we recognize and respect Austria's commitment to fighting Holocaust denial, the most odious form of hatred, as part of its historic responsibility to its Nazi past," the center's associate dean, Rabbi Abraham Cooper, said in a statement.
Kresbach said last month the controversial Third Reich historian was getting up to 300 pieces of fan mail a week from supporters around the world and was writing his memoirs in detention under the working title "Irving's War."
Irving was arrested Nov. 11 in the southern Austrian province of Styria on a warrant issued in 1989. He tried to win his provisional release on $24,000 bail, but a Vienna court rejected the motion, saying it considered him a flight risk.
Within two weeks of his arrest, he asserted through his lawyer that he had come to acknowledge the existence of Nazi-era gas chambers.
However, he 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.