KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) — A rights group has criticized Malaysia for deporting six ethnic Uighur Chinese who were seeking asylum, saying it has put the men’s lives in danger.

New York-based Human Rights Watch says the forced return of the men to China on Dec. 31 was a grave violation of international laws.

It says the six men were held earlier last year for allegedly attempting to leave Malaysia using false passports. It said Monday that the men registered with the U.N. refugee agency in Kuala Lumpur while in detention and were to have their claims reviewed when they were deported in a clandestine operation.

The U.N. agency said it sought the men’s release into its custody and regretted they were deported despite its intervention.

Malaysian officials can’t be immediately reached for comment.