ALEX Salmond is embroiled in a row after £16,000 of public support was given to a project headed by a senior member of the SNP and the pro-independence campaign.

More than £9000 of taxpayers' money was spent on the launch of the Scottish Asian Women's Association (SAWA) at Stirling Castle last year, 48 hours after it applied to become a registered charity.

Around half the money was spent on canapes at the event, which was hosted by the First Minister and SNP leader.

The SNP Government also secured use of the castle's Great Hall for the night. Ordinarily, the venue would cost almost £7000.

Now it has emerged the founder and chairwoman of SAWA is Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh, a member of the advisory board of the Yes Scotland campaign.

A former Pakistan television actress who now practises as a solicitor in Glasgow, Ms Ahmed-Sheikh is tipped to become a Nationalist MEP next year. She has known the First Minister since 2000, when she defected from the Conservatives.

Described by SNP colleagues as an ambitious networker, Ms Ahmed-Sheikh, 42, set up SAWA with the stated aim of raising the profile of Scots Asian women and promoting diversity.

Government files obtained under Freedom of Information show Mr Salmond agreed in September 2011 to host the SAWA launch after a meeting with Ms Ahmed-Sheikh. By January 2012, the First Minister and his deputy, Nicola Sturgeon, had agreed on April 19 as the date, and the Government Events Team had secured Stirling Castle for the night.

Speaking as the official host, Mr Salmond told the 160 guests Ms Ahmed-Sheikh was an "excellent" role model. She was appointed to the board of Yes Scotland six weeks later. Numerous SNP supporters were thought to have been among the guests.

The bill came to £9260, with more than £5400 on catering, £4500 of it for canapes, £1750 on audio-visual equipment, £1050 for pipers, £444 for flowers, £350 for a band, and £90 for the invitations.

Historic Scotland, the Government agency which operates the castle, quoted £5750 plus VAT to hire the Great Hall for an evening, or £6900, bringing total support to the value of £16,160.

The launch took place only 48 hours after Ms Ahmed-Sheikh applied to the Office of the Scottish Charity Regulator for SAWA to become a recognised charity, according to its files. SAWA was not granted full charitable status until July 30, 14 weeks after the First Minister launched it.

A Labour spokesman said: "We would expect all support for charitable organisations to be based on need and for funding to be distributed openly and fairly.

"We support the stated aims of SAWA, but it would be unfortunate if this good work was undermined by a perception of favouritism based on political allegiances."

Ms Ahmed-Sheikh was a Labour party member in the 1990s, then stood for the Tories in the 1999 Holy- rood election. A year later she defected to the SNP, a switch Mr Salmond said was a coup.

She is the SNP national women's officer and the only woman on the SNP's shortlist of six candidates for next year's European election. Her daughter Elysee was recently named as the SNP's 25,000th member.

Earlier this year, the First Minister hosted a SAWA awards ceremony, which was also attended by Labour leader Johann Lamont and LibDem leader Willie Rennie.

A Labour source said: "It was made pretty clear to any non-SNP guests they were asked along as political cover."

In 2008, Mr Salmond put his support – and more public money – behind another group headed by a friend and SNP candidate, his former aide Osama Saeed.

Mr Saeed's Scottish Islamic Foundation made a series of overblown promises and, after spending £203,000 of taxpayers' money, the company behind it was formally dissolved in January with nothing to show for the cash.

Asked about the perception of cronyism, Ms Ahmed-Sheikh said SAWA had cross-party support.

A Scottish Government spokesman said: "Any [cronyism] claims would be wrong and totally unfounded. The launch in April 2012 - was beneficial to both Scottish Asian women and wider representatives of Scottish civic life and industry. The association now has charitable status and its most recent event was attended on a cross-party basis."