Colombo, July 25, 2007: Rizana Nafeek, who left Sri Lanka as a teenager to work as a maid in Saudi Arabia, could be decapitated before she turns 20.

Saving Rizana Nafeek, who left Sri Lanka as a teenager to work as a maid in Saudi Arabia, from beheading has become one of the most urgent issues in a country where nearly everyone has worked abroad or had a relative employed overseas.

Nafeek went to Saudi Arabia two years ago to work as a maid but was given the additional duty of looking after a baby boy, which she was not trained to do.

The Sri Lankan Embassy says the infant died on May 22, 2005, while she was bottle-feeding him.

Nafeek, who was without legal representation at trial, allegedly confessed to her guilt in the child's death, according to the embassy, but then recanted, saying her confession was obtained under duress. Human rights groups say the boy's death appeared to be an accident.

The government has sent a delegation including Nafeek's parents and the deputy foreign minister to Saudi Arabia to plead for her life.

Activists say the case underscores the vulnerability of Sri Lankans willing to work overseas.

The deputy foreign minister, Hussain Bhaila, has separately met the baby's parents and the governor of Ad Dawadimi, 250 miles west of Riyadh, where Nafeek is held, to discuss pardoning the maid, according to the Saudi Okaz newspaper.

The paper also said that Nafeek's parents visited her in jail and found her in good health.

Ranjan Ramanayake, a popular film actor and activist who is a vocal campaigner for the welfare of Sri Lankan migrant workers, accused the government of doing too little to help workers when they get into trouble abroad.

"This is really pathetic. The attention paid to this crucial issue is very poor," Ramanayake said.

However, Keheliya Rambukwella, minister of foreign employment promotion and welfare, said his ministry gives seminars for citizens heading overseas, teaching them about their host country's laws, culture and behaviour. The government also takes prompt action to ensure the safety and welfare of Sri Lankan expatriates, he said.

But when they get in trouble, "the law of the land will apply," he said.

About 1.5 million Sri Lankans work abroad, nearly 400,000 of them in Saudi Arabia alone. Together, they earn $2.5 billion (about Dh9.1 billion), putting them in a virtual tie with the garment industry as the island nation's largest source of foreign currency.

Working as maids or drivers, Sri Lankan workers can earn as much as three or four times their local salaries, and they often send the bulk of their incomes back home.

The death sentence and other incidents have not however deterred Sri Lankans from seeking work in Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern nations, said Suraj Dandeniya, who heads the organisation that represents Sri Lankan companies recruiting foreign workers.