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By Frances Harrison
BBC News, Tehran
December 16, 2006

Iran has been severely criticised for hosting a conference questioning the Holocaust. Delegates included not only some of the world's best-known Holocaust deniers, but also white supremacists and anti-Semites.

In the BBC there's a lot of talk about impartial broadcasting. I've always wondered how that would work if you were the BBC correspondent in Nazi Germany reporting on Hitler.

Would you not have to take sides? Well I got closer than ever before to this problem reporting on Iran's Holocaust conference.

I have interviewed suicide bombers, sexually-abused children, raped women - I have seen the devastation of war and the tsunami.

But I have never reported on anything like this. On the second day some of the delegates were coming up to me congratulating me on my coverage of the story.

The guest list was a who's who of holocaust deniers - men who have spent time in prison in Europe for saying Hitler's gas chambers never existed
I was actually lurking around wondering if they wanted to kill me for calling them Holocaust deniers and members of the Ku Klux Klan.

Quite the contrary - all publicity is good publicity for these sort of people. They were delighted to have made it onto the BBC and did not think being called a holocaust denier was at all insulting.

Only one Malaysian woman whose interview I didn't broadcast looked at me rather sourly.

Nazi apologists

The conference was organised by the Iranian Foreign Ministry in a centre where normally the topic of discussion is the price of oil or the future of the non-aligned movement.

When it is so difficult for an American to get an Iranian visa, I cannot understand how the government here let in a man who has been described as perhaps America's best known racist.

There's a photograph on the internet of a young David Duke wearing a swastika on his arm.

He formed the National Association for the Advancement of White People, not to mention the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan.

One of my colleagues tried to explain to a foreign ministry official what sort of organisation the Klan was - he talked of its history - men in white hoods going around lynching black people.

Every delegate I interviewed congratulated Iran on its commitment to freedom of speech which they said was absent in the West
The official just shrugged it off. I wondered if the Foreign Ministry lost control over the guest list but then again the visa process is rigorous - it took my mother more than three months to get a tourist visa for Iran.

But it was not just white supremacists - the guest list was a who's who of Holocaust deniers - men who have spent time in prison in Europe for saying Hitler's gas chambers never existed.

A small clique of apologists for the Third Reich with only fringe appeal suddenly revelling in being mainstream - well mainstream at least in Iran.

Free speech

Let me give you a flavour of the so-called academic papers they delivered. One French speaker said: "The Holocaust is a gigantic lie and the gas chambers should be put in the rubbish bin of history."

Australian Fredrick Toeben , jailed in Germany for incitement and insulting the memory of the dead
Frenchman Robert Faurisson , convicted in France under Holocaust denial laws
Frenchman Georges Thiel , convicted in France under Holocaust denial laws
American David Duke , a former KKK leader and white supremacist

He had already spent one year in prison because of what he called "one of his little books". Little books - but big lies - denying the Nazis had a deliberate policy to exterminate the Jewish people.

He summed up his argument succinctly. He claimed there were no gas chambers at all - millions of Jews did not die - therefore there was no holocaust.

And if there was no Holocaust then there was no justification for the creation of the state of Israel. Therefore Israel was an impostor.

It had all the simplicity of a mathematical proof - refuting the worst genocide in living memory and absolving one of the most evil and wicked regimes in history of its crimes against humanity.

So this was the aim of the conference for Iran - to undermine the very argument for the existence of Israel.

And also to score a few points over the West on the issue of freedom of speech. Every delegate I interviewed congratulated Iran on its commitment to freedom of speech which they said was absent in the West where their comrades were in jail for denying the Holocaust.

They all paid tribute to their new hero, President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad. I asked them if they knew about the journalists and students who have been jailed in Iran for pushing the limits of freedom of speech in this country.

They were vague - happy to whitewash Iran without knowing the facts. As a journalist living and working in Iran I found it particularly galling to be told that I had freedom of speech by these people.

Eventually I found one of the movers and shakers behind the conference - a friend of President Ahmedinejad and asked him why there was freedom of speech to deny the Holocaust but not to criticise the Iranian government.

He told me there was complete freedom but the Western media was in the pocket of the Zionists and sent spies to undermine Iran's national security.

Presumably he meant all the students, bloggers, journalists and human rights lawyers who've been jailed here are Zionist spies.

Then he went on to say that the very presence of a BBC correspondent in Iran proved there was freedom of speech. Another twisted logic.

But when all the delegates were taken to see President Ahmedinejad for a mutual admiration session, the BBC, unlike other foreign media, was excluded from covering it. So much for Iranian freedom of speech.

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