Virgin's Richard Branson joins calls for clemency for Indonesia death-row inmates

SYDNEY (Reuters) - British businessman Richard Branson has joined calls for clemency for convicted foreigners on death row in Indonesia, as an Indonesian minister warned of a renewed influx of asylum seekers into Australia if it continues to push the issue.

Virgin founder Branson said on Wednesday he and fellow members of the Global Commission on Drug Policy had written to Indonesian President Joko Widodo, calling the planned execution of up to 11 foreigners a barbaric and inhumane form of punishment.

"What we have learnt is that treating drugs as a health issue, not as a criminal issue, it actually helps lower the number of drug deaths," Mr Branson told Australian Broadcasting Corp television. "It limits the spread of infectious diseases like HIV and AIDS or hepatitis C, it reduces drug-related crime, and it allows people who struggle with addiction to become useful members of society again."

The planned executions by Indonesia of the death row inmates, most of whom were convicted on drug smuggling charges, have been widely condemned internationally. The group includes citizens of Australia, France, Brazil, the Philippines, Ghana and Nigeria, as well as Indonesia.

Mr Joko, who has signalled a hard line on drug crimes, has stood firm against appeals for clemency, warning other countries to stay out of Indonesia's sovereign affairs. The executions have been delayed while a number of legal appeals remain outstanding.

Australia's efforts to free two of its citizens, Myuran Sukumaran, 33, and Andrew Chan, 31, have raised particular hackles and led to tensions with its neighbour Indonesia.

Indonesia's Chief Security Minister Tedjo Edy Purdijatno on Tuesday suggested Indonesia could release 10,000 asylum seekers to Australia if Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott continues to antagonise Indonesia over the executions.

Mr Purdijatno, a controversial figure in Indonesia, noted that Canberra and Jakarta had been working together to prevent asylum seekers attempting to reach Australia by boat.

"If Canberra keeps doing things that displease Indonesia, Jakarta will surely let the illegal immigrants go to Australia," Mr Purdijatno said on Metro TV. "There are more than 10,000 (asylum seekers) in Indonesia today. If they are let go to Australia, it will be like a human tsunami."

Mr Purdijatno referred to comments by Mr Abbott, who has called the planned executions "revolting", which appeared to link clemency for the Australians to financial aid it gave Indonesia after the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.

Mr Abbott, asked about Mr Purdijatno's comments, said he was "not in the business of picking fights with anyone".

"I'm in the business of trying to find constructive solutions and we've made our position on the execution of these Australians pretty clear," he told reporters. "We think these two people who've been on death row now for a decade have been thoroughly rehabilitated and reformed."

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