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Mohamed Fahmy was freed from an Egyptian prison last fall after spending more than a year behind bars on terrorism charges.

Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS

How — and whether — governments help Canadians jailed abroad shouldn't be left to discretion but instead enshrined in law, journalist Mohamed Fahmy said Tuesday as he helped to unveil a proposal to better protect those detained overseas.

Fahmy is leading an effort by Amnesty International Canada and civil society groups to convince the federal government to adopt a "protection charter" that would govern the rights of those who run afoul of foreign regimes.

The charter would enshrine consular assistance and equal treatment in law and create a transparent set of criteria for Canadians to understand when and how their government would intervene if they are held abroad.

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"We all understand the boundaries of diplomacy," Fahmy told a news conference on Parliament Hill. "All we can hope for is to establish a groundwork that is very clear in terms of when to intervene."

Fahmy was freed from an Egyptian prison last fall after spending more than a year behind bars on terrorism charges following a court case that was the subject of broad international criticism. He was joined Tuesday in Ottawa by the family members of two other Canadians currently in overseas prisons: Bashir Makhtal in Ethiopia and Huseyin Celil in China.

In both cases, the previous Conservative government intervened vocally, but to no avail. Celil's wife Kamila Telendibayeva said her 16-year-old son is ill and her youngest has never met his father — Celil was arrested four months before he was born on terrorism charges.

"March 26 this year is 10 years too long, please," she said, breaking down in tears as she begged the Liberal government for help.

Every Canadian who gets a passport pays a fee earmarked for the provision of consular services, including assistance for those detained while travelling outside Canada.

In their annual performance report published Tuesday, the Global Affairs department said it collected $104 million in such fees in 2014-2015 for services that cost $124 million to provide.

The provision of those services is based on standards first written in the 1990s and which govern everything from how long it should take a consular official to connect with a Canadian's friends or family or how regularly they should have contact with prisoners.

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"Every effort is made to obtain solutions for specific problems and to provide the required service," the report said.

"However, the department's ability to do so and its success are conditioned, in many instances, by the laws and regulations of other countries as well as the quality and level of co-operation offered by persons and organizations outside the government of Canada."

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