Indonesia threatens Australia with 'tsunami' of asylum-seekers

JAKARTA (AFP) - An Indonesian minister has warned a "human tsunami" of asylum-seekers could be unleashed on Australia in retaliation if Canberra keeps pressing for clemency for two Australian drug smugglers on death row, as ties between the neighbours fray.

Several foreigners are due to be executed for drug-related crimes with Australia among countries pleading with Indonesian President Joko Widodo to show mercy to their citizens. They include Australians Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran, as well as a Frenchman, Brazilian, three Nigerians and convicts from the Philippines and Ghana.

Australia's repeated calls for clemency have included comments by Prime Minister Tony Abbott that appeared to tie his country's aid donations to the pair's fate. But the bid caused great offence in Indonesia.

Indonesian Security Minister Tedjo Edhy Purdijatno said this week that his country could release a "human tsunami" of asylum-seekers in retaliation.

"Indonesia has done a lot in preventing illegal migrants from other countries from going to Australia," he was quoted as saying by Indonesian media.

"If Canberra keeps acting this way, Jakarta will certainly release migrants wanting to go to Australia.

"There are over 10,000 currently in Indonesia. If they are released and we let them go to Australia, it will be like a human tsunami."

Australia has struggled for years to stem a rising tide of asylum-seekers trying to reach its shores, often from transit hubs in Indonesia. Many have died making the hazardous journey in crammed, rickety boats, normally after paying huge fees to people-smugglers.

Abbott last month said Jakarta should remember the US$1 billion (S$1.39 billion) of assistance sent from Australia in the aftermath of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, which killed around 220,000 people.

But the bid backfired in Indonesia, where groups of protesters this week delivered bags of coins to the Australian embassy, saying they were handing back tsunami aid money.

Shouting "Shut Abbott's mouth" and "Abbott, say sorry", they trampled on a poster bearing a picture of the Australian prime minister with tape plastered over his mouth, as they handed over the coins.

Virgin chief Richard Branson on Wednesday added his voice to those urging death row inmates to be spared, saying the death penalty was a "failed deterrent" while offering to fly to Jakarta for talks.

Branson, a member of the Global Commission on Drug Policy, said in a letter to the Indonesian leader published on Virgin's website that he was willing to fly to Jakarta to discuss the issue.

"We have done a lot of research into the war on drugs on a global basis," he told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation of the commission. "And based on science and real studied research, we found that countries that still carry out executions for drug offences have not seen any significant shifts in supply and demand and the drug trade remains remarkably unaffected by the threat of capital punishment."

Branson said Portugal, which decriminalised drug use in 2001, was an example of how the issue could be tackled. Health experts have credited Portugal's move as partly responsible for the drug addiction decline.

His plea came as Australian media said Sukumaran, 33, had made a personal appeal to Joko by painting a portrait of the president, signing it "people can change".

Sukumaran and Chan, 31, started programmes that ranged from painting to photography in the decade they were held at Kerobokan jail in Bali after their arrests in 2005 as ringleaders of the so-called "Bali Nine" drug smuggling gang.

Sukumaran's brother Chinthu said Wednesday before visiting Sukumaran that his family remained hopeful Joko "will get to see how much Myuran and Andrew have done inside the prison to help the Indonesian people and that he will show mercy on our family".

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