BONN — The German government, media and even judges on Wednesday condemned a regional court for adulating a radical rightist leader after handing him a light sentence for denying that the Holocaust ever occurred.
A spokesman for Chancellor Helmut Kohl said the German government "regrets . . . the bad signals stemming from the verdict" Tuesday by the Mannheim court, while Justice Minister Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger called the decision "a slap in the face to all victims of the Holocaust."
The Mannheim court explained that it had given Guenter Deckert, the head of the extreme rightist National Democratic Party, a light sentence for inciting racial hatred last June because he had no prior criminal record and was a "family father whose crime in principle consisted of expressing an opinion."
Critics charged that using such mild language to describe Deckert and the "Auschwitz lie" would encourage the small but violent groups of neo-Nazis who have lashed out at foreigners and Jews since German reunification in 1990. About 30 people, most of them Turks, have been killed in neo-Nazi attacks.
The controversy erupted even as police moved to block rightist rallies planned for the coming weekend to mark the anniversary of the death of Rudolf Hess, Hitler's deputy who hanged himself in prison in 1987.
The public television network ZDF called the Mannheim verdict "a scandal" and, in an unusual criticism of one judge by another, Viktor Weber, deputy chairman of the Assn. of German Judges, said the decision was incomprehensible.
"The Holocaust is a historical fact that you cannot deny," Weber said on television. "You must accept what an independent court has ruled, but you do not have to agree with it."
The case has been controversial in Germany and internationally from the outset.
Deckert, a former schoolteacher, was convicted of inciting hatred in 1991 after organizing a lecture by Fred Leuchter, an American neo-Nazi and prison gas-chamber designer. He wrongly claims that Auschwitz never had gas chambers and, therefore, that the killing of 6 million Jews never took place.
Deckert translated Leuchter's speech into German and sold tapes of it. It is illegal in Germany to wear a swastika, give the Nazi salute or spread Nazi literature, and Deckert received a one-year suspended sentence and a fine of about $6,000.
Germany's highest appeals court considered the case but sent it back to the Mannheim court last March.
In June, the Mannheim court gave Deckert the same light sentence. A 65-page explanation of the decision was published Tuesday.