PHNOM PENH (Reuters) - The Cambodian government has banned a documentary about the unsolved 2004 assassination of influential trade union leader Chea Vichea, according to the film's U.S. director Bradley Cox.
Cox said the government has blocked any screenings of "Who Killed Chea Vichea?" over the past month -- the first banning of a politically charged film since the 1980s in Cambodia which is widely criticized for restrictions on political freedoms.
The movie had its European premiere at the Cannes independent film festival last month and has been put by Amnesty International's on its list of the Top Ten Movies That Matter.
Cox said trade unionists tried to show the movie on May 10 at the spot where Vichea was killed to mark International Labor Day but police raided the location, leading to a declaration by the government, led by Prime Minister Hun Sen, that the movie was an illegal import.
"This is what governments do when they don't want their own people to know the facts and when they can't afford to show weakness, even for an instant," said Rich Garella, one of the producers of the Loud Mouth Film movie, and a former managing editor of The Cambodia Daily.
"I would encourage Cambodian government officials to practice what they preach," said Cox in a statement.
Cambodian Information Minister and the top government spokesman Khieu Kanharith said he was not fully aware of the reasons for the ban but in part it was because the documentary intended to blame his government of Vichea's murder.
"It might have been that the documentary intends to accuse the government of murder," Khieu Kanharith told Reuters.
The 55-minute documentary asks the question who killed Chea Vichea but does not give the answer. It does, however, look at corruption within the impoverished Southeast Asian country.
The banning of the film comes as the ruling Cambodian People's Party is accused by rights groups and opposition lawmakers of abusing its parliamentary majority to push through laws that limit freedom of expression.
Cambodia passed legislation last year tightening defamation laws and outlawing public protests by more than 200 people which donors said were moves to stifle criticism of the ruling party.
Vichea, the leader of the Free Trade Union of Workers of the Kingdom of Cambodia with close links to the opposition Sam Rainsy Party, was shot in the head and chest in the morning of January 22, 2004, at a newspaper kiosk in the capital Phnom Penh.
Cox was on the scene with his camera just moments after the shooting and conducted his own investigation over the next five years.
Two men were arrested days within days and sentenced to 20 years in prison each but in 2008 Cambodian authorities reopened the case and the two men were provisionally released by the Supreme Court in January 2009.
Writing by Belinda Goldsmith in Sydney and Prak Chan Thul in Phnom Penh, Editing by Jeremy Laurence