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Hunger Striker Close To Death

January 1, 1998

PHOENIX (AP) _ A convicted murderer who stopped eating when prison officials wouldn’t give him the peculiar diet he requested has lost more than half his weight and is apparently on the verge of death.

Teshome Abate, 39, has lost about 75 pounds since starting his hunger strike in August, said Camilla Strongin, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Corrections.

The 5-foot-10-inch inmate now weighs about 74 pounds, she said.

``I understand that he is very weak,″ Strongin said Wednesday. ``I think that there’s a great concern he will not last the next couple of weeks because he is in such a weakened state.″

Abate has been in St. Mary’s Hospital in Tucson since September, when prison officials got a court order allowing them to force-feed him. Abate has thwarted efforts to feed him intravenously by pulling out the tubes.

``The reality is, if he wants to die by this method, he’s going to be successful, and our efforts to thwart that are not going to prevent his ultimate wish,″ Strongin said.

The case raises thorny issues for both prison officials and advocates for prisoners rights: Whether an inmate should be allowed to refuse both food and medical treatment and how far officials should go in keeping inmates from killing themselves.

Abate’s hunger strike stems from a federal lawsuit he filed in 1989, two years after he started a 20-year prison term for second-degree murder. Authorities said he shot his landlady after she told him he had to move out.

The suit accused prison officials of refusing to provide a diet that conformed with his Ethiopian Orthodox Christian beliefs.

Although Ethiopian Orthodox leaders told prison officials that their faith requires following Old Testament dietary laws, Abate refused to eat the prison’s kosher diet, said Mike Linderman, the prison system’s head chaplain.

Abate constantly changed his dietary demands, even during the course of his lawsuit, Linderman said. One judge called Abate’s demands ``eccentric and erratic″ and wrote that they threatened his health.

The same judge rejected Abate’s lawsuit in 1994, a ruling later upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court. Abate began a hunger strike this spring which he abandoned in May after losing 60 pounds.

Abate has been deemed mentally competent by state psychiatrists, Strongin said, meaning he has the right to refuse treatment if he wants to. The court order says officials may force-feed him, but does not require them to do so.

Some have expressed doubts about Abate’s sanity, however.

Abate’s voluminous court filings are rambling, sometimes nearly incomprehensible, and Linderman said Abate would send similarly bizarre letters to prison staff and chaplains.

``Some of them really made no sense,″ Linderman said of the letters. ``They were lengthy diatribes about how these chaplains were not really people of god.″

Abate’s handwritten court filings are often marked with obscure symbols and include claims that prison officials were trying to poison him with tainted ``mocha mix″ because of his ``none violent fight against illegal drugs, homosexuality, against inhuman acts of abortion law, ungodliness, lawlessness, etc.″

Prisoners’ rights advocates are split on the hunger strike issue, with some saying officials should do all they can to keep Abate alive and others saying he has a right to starve himself to death.

``Clearly, if they (prison officials) have a policy that allows them to do involuntary feeding they also have the responsibility to see that the involuntary feeding is successful,″ said Donna Hamm of the Arizona prisoners’ rights group Middle Ground. ``You have to say, `Why did it get this far when they are in control of every meal he eats?‴

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