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Filmmaker John Greyson.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris YoungCHRIS YOUNG/The Canadian Press

Prime Minister Stephen Harper should personally intervene to end the arbitrary detention of two Canadians in Egypt, in an ordeal that has dragged on for more than a month.

Dr. Tarek Loubani and John Greyson launched a hunger strike on Monday from Cairo's Tora prison, underscoring the depth of distress they must feel after learning their jail time will extend, without charge, for at least another 15 days.

It could last a whole lot longer. Last week, Egypt's Interim President extended a nationwide state of emergency for two more months, which, among other things, provides a legal basis for arbitrary detention. The same decree created the nighttime curfew which the two Canadians breached on Aug. 16 when they wandered into a Cairo police station to ask for directions.

Egyptian prosecutors have accused the men of "participating with members of the Muslim Brotherhood" in an attack on the police station. It is far more likely that the two Canadians were just the wrong place at the wrong time, as Ottawa contends. Perhaps they should have been more mindful of the curfew. Maybe they were naive to wander into a police station, with deadly riots raging outside.

But to leave their fate in the hands of a notoriously corrupt judicial system would be ludicrous. Their arrest occurred in a context of broad, continuing human rights violations across Egypt. Security forces have rounded up 2,000 Islamists in the last month alone. It is worth noting that Mr. Greyson, who is openly gay, faces specific dangers in a country that has been condemned for its treatment of homosexuals.

It is incumbent on Mr. Harper to step in. Lower-level diplomacy, such as summoning the Egyptian ambassador, has only succeeded in obtaining for Dr. Loubani and Mr. Greyson a less crowded jail cell with more than one toilet. There needs to be higher-level intervention to secure their release.

Around 130,000 people have signed a petition calling for their freedom. A coalition of artists, filmmakers and celebrities has also taken up their cause. Egypt's current crop of military rulers are, of course, unlikely to be swayed by such a show of support.

It's time for Mr. Harper to pick up the phone.