OXFORD (AFP) — A controversial debate involving a Holocaust-denying historian and a far-right politician at Oxford University went ahead on Monday night despite vociferous protests.
Hundreds of demonstrators changed anti-fascist slogans, sang songs and waved placards outside the Oxford Union Debating Society, where David Irving, who was jailed in Austria over his views on the Holocaust, and British National Party head Nick Griffin, were speaking.
A group of demonstrators managed to break through a security cordon outside the building and staged a sit-in protest on stage, delaying the event by more than an hour as they sang songs until they were persuaded to leave.
Security at the event was so tight that organisers separated the speakers into two groups with Irving in one room and Griffin in another.
As a result of the throng of protesters, nearly half of the students with tickets to the event could not attend the debate, while those who did manage to get through faced shouts of "shame on you".
Organisers of the free speech debate have resisted pressure to withdraw the invitations to the two, arguing that students would be given the opportunity to publicly challenge their views.
Others who had been scheduled to speak, including Defence Secretary Des Browne, backed out after it emerged that the controversial pair would attend.
Luke Tryl, the debating society's president pointed out that the club's members had voted clearly in favour of extending the invitations to Irving and Griffin.
"They agreed with me that we've got to fight fascism head on, in debate," he told Sky News television.
But Trevor Phillips, head of the Equalities and Human Rights Commission, condemned the decision to go ahead with the evening debate.
"As a former president of the National Union of Students, I'm ashamed that this has happened. This is not a question of freedom of speech, this is a juvenile provocation," he told the BBC Sunday.
Controversial historian Irving, 69, is notorious for attempting to claim that Adolf Hitler was not party to the Nazis' genocide of European Jews during World World II. He spent 13 months in jail in Austria over his views.
Griffin, who was convicted in 1998 for incitement to racial hatred over material denying the Holocaust, has repeatedly denied that his party is a racist group.
He described the protesters as "a mob which would kill."
Irving, meanwhile, said in his speech: "I still refuse to be bowed, I am not going to write what they want me to write, I'm going to write what I find in the archives."
The debate over whether or not the event should go ahead draws parallels to a similar one over the appearance of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad at Columbia University in New York in September, when several protesters argued that Ahmadinejad should not be allowed to attend.
Former members of the Oxford Union Debating Society include five former British prime ministers, while ex-Pakistani prime minister Benazir Bhutto was the Union's president in 1977.
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