Nepal's military has for the first time agreed to make public the names of its prisoners amid concerns about the disappearance of hundreds of people in army custody, a UN rights official says.
The Royal Nepalese Army (RNA), which is not legally allowed to hold prisoners, has also promised to transfer the detainees to civilian authority, said Ian Martin, Nepal representative of the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR).
The prisoners are being held in army barracks in the absence of other detention facilities.
The OHCHR won the concessions as part of its efforts to address human rights concerns that have mounted since King Gyanendra seized power with army backing to stem a Maoist rebellion that has claimed around 12,000 lives since 1996.
Human rights groups, including Amnesty International, say that many of those killed were victims of extrajudicial executions by Nepal's police and troops.
In 2003 and 2004, the UN Working Group on Enforced and Involuntary Disappearances said it received more reports of disappearances at the hands of the Nepali government than from any other country.
"There are a very large number of outstanding cases of disappearances. At the moment I cannot put a figure on that, but it is in the hundreds," Martin told reporters in an interview.
"One of the problems is that there has never been a system whereby there is a central register of who is held by the army in the army barracks. The RNA is now working on setting up such a central register."
In response to growing condemnation of the king's power grab, the royal government in April reached an agreement with the OHCHR to monitor human rights in Nepal and report violations.
"One of the major human rights issues of concern to the UN system before our arrival has been arbitrary detention, ill treatment, torture and disappearance of people held in army barracks," Martin said.
"Nepali law does not provide for people to be held in army custody. And the RNA tells us they don't want to have to hold people in army barracks and are pressing the home ministry to provide other places of detention," he said.
"That may take a little time, but that is not an excuse for long-term detainees still in army custody and at this moment there are people who were arrested in 2003, 2004 and are still held in army barracks."
Martin, 59, who has served in similar posts in East Timor, Rwanda and Bosnia, said his office is now staffed by 11 members to monitor human rights abuse claims and will expand to 50 people by November.
He said the Nepalese government has so far provided unhindered access to detainees.
"We had very good and strong assurance of cooperation. The important aspect of our mandate is visits to different places of detention and detainees without prior notice to any place of detention and interview detainees in private," he said.
Martin brushed aside suggestions that the UN was not as aggressive in documenting human rights violations by the Maoist rebels.
"We are not going to be sympathetic to any kind of human rights abuse and we will apply the same standards of international law to how the state authorities conduct themselves and to reactions of the Maoists."
He said there has been some contact with the Maoist rebels, including a pledge they gave his office not to harm an estimated 60 soldiers captured by the rebels in western Nepal after a clash in August.