MANILA, April 11, 2011 (AFP) - A Philippine court said Monday it had ordered Imelda Marcos to return by next month nearly $280,000 in state funds stolen by her then-dictator husband nearly three decades ago.

The anti-graft Sandiganbayan court said Marcos had 30 days from April 5 to return the money, and if she failed to do so, authorities would be forced to seize property to cover for the amount.

"The court issued the writ of execution and the count will begin from Friday last week, the date when the court sheriff received the order," said a spokeswoman for the court, who did not want to be named.

Imelda's husband, Ferdinand Marcos, ruled the Philippines for 20 years, much of it under a brutal dictatorship that left thousands of activists dead or missing.

He and his family were also accused of stealing vast amounts of wealth from state coffers, with the government estimating up to $10 billion was looted.

A "people power" revolt ended Marcos's rule in 1986, and he was forced into exile in Hawaii where he died three years later.

The money to be returned came from funds that Marcos ordered siphoned off from the National Food Authority, the government's rice importing agency, and transferred to a private bank account in 1983.

A Marcos crony, Jesus Tanchanco, who formerly headed the agency, had testified against the dictator in exchange for immunity from prosecution, saying he was the one who siphoned off the money.

The anti-graft court initially ruled in September in favour of the government. After first questioning the verdict, the Marcoses dropped their appeal and the court spokeswoman said last week's ruling was now final.

Imelda Marcos and her lawyers were not available to comment Monday.

Chasing the Marcos wealth has been difficult because much of it is believed locked in secret bank accounts abroad, government prosecutors have said.

But Marcos rights victims won a symbolic victory when a US court in January approved the distribution of $7.5 million to them for abuses suffered during the dictatorship.

The money came from assets held in the US by a crony of Marcos, in whose name the dictator bought land in Texas and Colorado.

Imelda Marcos, 81, and her children were allowed to return home after the dictator died, and they have since regained political clout.

The flamboyant matriarch last year won a seat in Congress, while her eldest son is a senator and widely tipped to run for the presidency in 2016 elections.

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