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Asia

Australian racing fans set free in Malaysia

Nine Grand Prix fans have been set free after provoking anger in Malaysia by donning skimpy swimsuits bearing the nation's flag. The Australian men apologized for the drunken stunt after being locked up since Sunday.

The Formula 1 fans walked out of a Malaysian court Thursday, chastened after spending four days in jail over an obnoxious drunken stunt in which they poked fun at the Malaysian national team in the conservative Muslim-majority country.

The nine men, all in their 20s, had been celebrating countryman Daniel Ricciardo's Malaysia Grand Prix win on Sunday and had mimicked the driver's quaffing of champagne by drinking beer out of their own shoes.

The boorish display didn't go over well. They were immediately detained and charged with flouting Malaysia's laws on public decency and national insult.

One of the nine, 28-year-old Thomas Whitworth read out a letter of apology on behalf of the group. "We are remorseful of our actions on that day. We had no idea that our conduct would be deemed to be inappropriate, crass or even downright offensive to the citizens of this country," he said.

A day before, Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop had chastised the fans for being blind to local sensitivities: "What might be seen as a foolish prank or Aussie 'blokey' behavior in Australia can be seen very differently in another country," she told Australia's Channel 9 on Wednesday.

Ricciardo, the driver whose success inspired the beer-fueled revelry, described the incident as harmless and expressed his wish they'd be spared serious penalties.

"I respect the laws of Malaysia, but beyond that I don't think they deserve any further punishment," Ricciardo told Sydney's The Daily Telegraph newspaper. "In Australia, it's a bit different, but I'm very sure they didn't intend to offend anyone."

The men ultimately escaped criminal prosecution following a thorough dressing down by a Malaysian magistrate: "Your conduct on October 2 was totally inappropriate by dressing down to your swimming trunks," Judge Harith Sham Mohamad Yasin told them as their appeared in court.

"It hurt the feelings of all Malaysians to display the flag in such a manner," the judge said. "Let this serve as a reminder to all of you to learn about our local cultures and customs."

The judge told the court he'd take the men's relative youth into account, expressions of contrition and the fact that they'd been jailed since Sunday."I hereby caution and discharge all of you," Yasin said and ordered them released.

jar/kl (AP, AFP, Reuters)