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Mohamed Fahmy hold a news conference in Ottawa on Jan. 26, 2016.

THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

A Canadian journalist who spent almost two years jailed in Egypt says the families of two people detained in the Middle East can't depend on the federal government to win their freedom.

Mohamed Fahmy, a former Al-Jazeera journalist, was released last year after receiving a pardon from Egypt's president.

Fahmy, who was speaking at a human rights conference in Calgary Wednesday, said government assistance is key in freeing both a Calgary imam detained in Turkey and a Montreal professor arrested in Iran.

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But he said it's essential their families work with non-governmental organization, human rights groups and the media to give the two a "human face" and garner international attention.

"It's the government who decides when to do this or that but sometimes the families and the people on the ground have a better grip of what's the best approach," Fahmy said.

"I would tell the family not to just rely on the government. Of course, listening to the government's advice is important but also to have your own network on the ground."

Fahmy said that would include forging close ties to non-governmental organizations and human rights groups who may have more access to the prisons or the judicial system.

Calgary Imam Davud Hanci was arrested in Turkey last month for allegedly helping orchestrate a coup attempt, while Montreal university professor Homa Hoodfar was arrested in Iran earlier this year and has been indicted on unknown charges.

Hanci has been accused in Turkish media reports of having ties to Fethullah Gulen, the U.S.-based cleric the Turkish government accuses of masterminding the coup. Gulen, a former ally-turned-critic of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has denied any involvement.

Hoodfar, a 65-year-old retired professor at Concordia University, was born in Iran but has been living in Montreal for 30 years.

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She is an anthropologist who has conducted research on Muslim women in various regions of the world.

Fahmy was arrested in 2013 with two Al-Jazeera English colleagues, and sentenced to three years in prison for airing what a court described as "false news" and biased coverage in favour of the now-banned Muslim Brotherhood.

He said the network on the ground eventually helped secure his release.

"It's very easy for someone to be stigmatized like I was as a terrorist or someone who may be stigmatized as a radical imam. But the point is to humanize this person, explain very openly who he is and hope that the Turkish government is listening," Fahmy said.

He said the current federal government is doing a good job but needs to adopt a new protection charter he proposed that would increase Canada's intervention and support for its citizens and journalists imprisoned abroad.

"Now there's more than 1,400 Canadians who are detained abroad," said Fahmy.

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"Some of them are facing huge human rights violations and I believe Ms. Homa Hoodfar falls into that position and the imam in Turkey as well. I hope the government stands beside them."

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