The UK's decision to give millions of pounds to help Pakistan fight drug trafficking – an offence that carries the death penalty – has been thrown into question after the country resumed executions last week.
Human rights groups are concerned that the UK, which leads the world in calling for the abolition of the death penalty, has been helping Pakistan to catch drug smugglers, despite the country's poor human rights record and the fact more than 8,000 people are on death row there. Many of those awaiting execution are "mules" who have been convicted for trafficking drugs on behalf of criminal gangs.
At least 25 Britons are in jail in Pakistan facing a potential death penalty, according to the human rights group Reprieve, which bases its figure on a briefing from the Foreign Office. Two have been convicted and sentenced to death.
The most high-profile Briton facing the death penalty is Khadija Shah from Birmingham, who is imprisoned in Adiala jail with her two-month-old baby. Shah was arrested at Islamabad airport in Pakistan earlier this year with 140lb of heroin. According to Reprieve, her jail is known for its dangerously "unhygienic conditions" and has recently suffered an outbreak of deadly tuberculosis.
Documents obtained by the Observer show that the UK government was one of a handful of countries that donated almost $20m (£12m) to Pakistan law enforcement in the last couple of years for the purposes of an ongoing programme to combat drug trafficking.
The money channelled through UNODC, the United Nations office on drugs and crime, is being used to train staff in how to detect illicit trafficking and border management. The cash is being allocated across agencies including Pakistan's Frontier Corps, customs and its military.
Executions were thought to have been unofficially on hold in Pakistan, but last week a death row prisoner was hanged following a conviction by a military court, the first execution since January 2009. The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan said it was "deeply shocked by the execution of a prisoner at the Mianwali Central Jail early on Thursday".
Human rights groups said last week's execution should act as a wake-up call to the government. "This is a crucial time," said Damon Barrett, deputy director at Harm Reduction International. "The UK has long been a leader against the death penalty in the international community, but money talks. By making the right decisions about how and where it spends its money, the UK can make its opposition to the death penalty even clearer."
UK aid to Pakistan's counter-narcotics programmes came as the number of death sentences handed down in Pakistan tripled from at least five in 2009, to at least 16 in 2011.
The UK has also given aid to Iran, where more than 540 people have been executed for drugs offences, a five-fold increase since 2008, according to a report to be released this week by Harm Reduction International. At least 16 people were executed for drugs in Saudi Arabia in the first six months of 2012 compared with one person in 2011. But other countries where drug smuggling carries the death penalty have suspended executions. There have been no executions in Indonesia or Thailand since 2008 and no recent executions in Malaysia.
The government believes tackling drug trafficking in countries such as Pakistan and Iran, both of which border Afghanistan – the world's largest producer of opium – will help prevent heroin ending up on the UK's street.
A government spokesman said: "We provide aid to a range of international partners to tackle the drugs trade and minimise the threat it poses to the UK. We take human rights very seriously and provide clear guidance to our officials to help them identify any risk of abuses."
But human rights groups said it was time to rethink aid for anti-drug smuggling programmes in countries that practised the death penalty.
"The war on drugs is a minefield of human rights abuses making international cooperation fraught with risk," said Kasia Malinowska-Sempruch, director of the Open Society Foundations Global Drug Policy Program.
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