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Poet Maung Saung Kha, 23, stands after a court sentenced him to six months in jail for defaming former president Thein Sein, making him one of the first political activists sentenced since Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi took power in Yangon, Myanmar May 24, 2016. REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun

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By Antoni Slodkowski

YANGON (Reuters) - A court in Myanmar on Tuesday sentenced a young poet to six months in jail for defaming former President Thein Sein, making him one of the first political activists sentenced since Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi took power in April.

Maung Saung Kha, 23, used his Facebook account to publish a poem featuring a tattoo of a president on his penis. He was charged for defaming Thein Sein under telecommunications laws used to curb free speech in several other recent cases.

Because Maung Saung Kha has spent more than six months in jail since being arrested, he will be freed on Tuesday. But the case highlights the limits of control that Suu Kyi's government, elected in November on pledges of democratization, has under Myanmar's former military rulers, who still play an outsized political role.

It also draws attention to a continued use of the telecommunications law to stifle dissent. The act, enacted as part of an opening up of the telecoms sector in 2013, bans use of the telecommunications network to "extort, threaten, obstruct, defame, disturb, inappropriately influence or intimidate".

"I'm glad I can go home freely, but I'm disappointed about the verdict," said Maung Saung Kha after leaving the court.

"Even though we have a democratically elected government, the verdict was like from the old days."

The U.S. State Department said Myanmar's new government is committed to improving freedom of expression, while adding that democratic reforms will take time.

"We remain committed to supporting it to make further progress on this as well as other human rights issues," State Department spokesman Mark Toner said.

The judiciary in Myanmar has for decades been used by the junta against democratic opposition activists, many from Suu Kyi's party, jailing them for long terms after show trials.

Despite Suu Kyi's victory in November, the military-drafted constitution guarantees it control over the Home Ministry, which oversees the courts. It also controls two other security ministries and 25 percent of seats in the parliament.

Last year, NGO worker Patrick Kum Jaa Lee was sentenced to six months in jail for commenting on a picture showing a foot standing on a photo of army chief Min Aung Hlaing. Several more people were charged under the same law this year.

Suu Kyi's government released scores of political prisoners shortly after taking power, but 64 people remain behind bars and 138 are awaiting trial for political actions, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, a watchdog.

It is unclear how far the NDL intends to change other oppressive laws from the military era. Rights advocates raised alarm that a draft of a revised law regulating public demonstrations keeps many military-era curbs on free speech.

(Additional reporting by Timothy McLaughlin; Editing by Nick Macfie and Jonathan Oatis)

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