TORONTO (AP) _ Canada's Federal Court on Thursday stayed the deportation of one of China's most wanted men, alleged smuggling kingpin Lai Changxing. Lai made a last-ditch appeal to remain in Canada, saying he would be tortured or executed if forced to return to his homeland.

Justice Carolyn Layden-Stevenson ordered that Lai be allowed to remain in Canada while he appeals his deportation order to China _ a process likely to take months.

Chinese authorities accuse Lai of being the mastermind behind a Xiamen-based network that smuggled as much as $10 billion worth of goods with the protection from corrupt government officials. Beijing claims the smuggled goods included cigarettes, vehicles, heating and cooking oil, textiles, chemicals and other raw materials.

Lai, his wife, Tsang Mingna, and their three children arrived in Canada in 1999 after fleeing China and applied for asylum. They said the refugee board that initially turned down their asylum claim overlooked the nature of political persecution in China.

Lai was scheduled to be deported May 26 but won an appeal hearing by the Federal Court in Ottawa. While remaining under house arrest in Vancouver, his lawyers argued in court Wednesday that Lai would surely face torture or execution if forced to return home.

Lai's lawyer, David Matas, argued before Layden-Stevenson on Wednesday that Ottawa was putting more emphasis on diplomatic relations with China than on the rights of his client, claiming he would face torture or possible execution if sent home.

Layden-Stevenson appeared to agree with that in her ruling, saying that there appeared to be no guarantee that Lai would not face danger or torture if deported.

``The issue of the assurances lies at the heart of the debate,'' she wrote. ``Absent the assurances, the records disclose credible evidence that a serious likelihood of jeopardy to life or safety exists. Removal at this time would cause Mr. Lai to face the risk that he alleges is present.''

She noted Lai has not been convicted of any criminal offense, is not on welfare, and is not a danger to the public or a security risk. Layden-Stevenson said ``Mr. Lai's interests and the need for fairness'' outweigh the government's argument that he has exhausted all his appeals.

Esta Resnick, a lawyer for Canada's federal immigration agency, argued before the court Wednesday: ``This is a case of a common criminal fugitive from justice, nothing more,'' she said. ``He's asking you to reweigh evidence that was already heard before these various courts and tribunals. The public interest favors enforcement of the law.''

Lai's bid for refugee status has already been denied all the way up the Supreme Court of Canada, which refused in 2005 to revisit his Federal Court of Appeal loss.

In 2001, then-Chinese President Jiang Zemin sent former Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien a diplomatic note with assurances Lai would not be executed if returned to China.

Beijing, in its zeal to capture some 500 fugitive officials abroad on corruption charges, has pledged Lai would receive a fair trial. Canadian authorities are technically bound by laws that protect refugees from being deported to countries whose judicial systems apply torture.

Eight people connected to the case have already been executed in China and several people, including Tsang's mother, have been jailed for sending Lai funds for his defense.

Lai has said he is just a fall guy in China's crackdown on corruption.