By Nellie Peyton

DAKAR (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Human rights activists on Thursday demanded clemency for a Senegalese maid who was trafficked to Saudi Arabia and may face the death penalty after being charged with killing her employer.

Mbayang Diop, 22, was arrested in June, weeks after arriving in the world's largest oil exporter, and accused of stabbing her employer to death in the capital of Riyadh, rights groups said.

Senegalese civil society groups say Diop may have killed the woman she worked for in self-defense after a dispute, and that the Saudi authorities had not properly investigated the case.

On Wednesday, the Senegalese ambassador to Saudi Arabia visited Diop in prison in the eastern city of Dammam to provide assistance, Senegal's foreign ministry said in a statement.

The Saudi embassy in Dakar was not immediately available to comment on the case.

Diop left Dakar without telling her family, having been approached and offered work as a maid, said her brother, Fallou.

"If she had consulted us, we would have told her not to go," he said, explaining how other women from their neighborhood in Dakar had also moved to Saudi Arabia with the promise of work.

"She said she couldn't rest - that the work was very hard."

Diop, who is in jail awaiting trial, is one of a growing number of Senegalese women heading to the Middle East for domestic work, lured by the prospect of a salary and a chance to escape joblessness at home, according to Amnesty International.

But many have their passports confiscated by their employers and face abuse, said Amnesty's regional director Alioune Tine.

"These women are of victims of violence and rape ... they are at the mercy of their employer, they are the property of their employer," Tine told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

"They are the victims of a system of modern slavery."

CRACKDOWN

Diop has not yet seen a lawyer, appeared in court or entered a plea to the charge of murder, which is punishable by death in Saudi Arabia, said Bara Gaye, the mayor of Yeumbeul, a suburb on the outskirts of Dakar that is home to Diop's family.

Senegal's foreign minister Mankeur Ndiaye described Diop last week as "a victim like many others", and said the West African nation's government would crack down on traffickers.

Traditionally, domestic workers in the Gulf have come from Asia but the number of African migrants is increasing, driven by the lack of opportunities at home, human rights activists say.

Women are often trafficked to Saudi Arabia, one of the world's largest employers of domestic workers, and forced into domestic servitude, said the annual Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report, which grades countries on their anti-slavery efforts.

Civil society groups and protesters this week gathered in central Dakar to demand clemency for Diop.

Boubacar Seye, head of migrant rights group Horizon Sans Frontieres, called for an investigation into the case, saying none had taken place so far.

"Everyone knows the conditions these women live in - they're like slaves," said Iba Sarr of the human rights group Raddho, urging the Senegalese authorities to pursue the case.

(Additional Reporting and Writing By Kieran Guilbert, Editing by Jo Griffin; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit news.trust.org)