A Russian court on Thursday found the American basketball star Brittney Griner guilty of an attempt to smuggle illegal narcotics into Russia and sentenced her to nine years in a penal colony, according to her lawyers. The verdict ended a closely watched trial that her supporters say made her a pawn in a tense geopolitical showdown over the war in Ukraine.
The verdict, virtually preordained in a legal system in which defendants are rarely acquitted, leaves Ms. Griner’s fate subject to diplomatic bargaining between Russia and the United States. The countries have been discussing the possibility of a prisoner exchange that would bring Ms. Griner home from Russia, where she has been detained since traveling there in mid-February.
Officials in Moscow have said that a verdict in her trial was a necessary precondition for a possible exchange for Ms. Griner, an Olympian who is one of the biggest stars of her generation. The United States has said she was wrongly detained, held by Russia as a bargaining chip amid the acrimony with the West over Russia’s war in Ukraine.
Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken discussed the issue with his Russian counterpart, Sergey V. Lavrov, last week, in their first phone call since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but no breakthroughs were reported.
The judge also issued Ms. Griner with a fine of 1 million rubles, about $16,300.
Ms. Griner’s defense team had been trying to persuade the judge to be lenient, saying that she had brought hashish into Russia by mistake when she arrived there to compete for a team there during her off-season from the WNBA, and had no intention of breaking Russian law.
They reiterated that request on Thursday, asking the court to take into account Ms. Griner’s personality and the role she has played in the development of Russian basketball. “There should be a milder penalty,” said Maria Blagovolina, who is representing Ms. Griner.
In comments to the court, Ms. Griner talked about her upbringing in Houston and the values her parents instilled in her, including “take ownership for your responsibilities.”
“That’s why I pleaded guilty to my charges; I understand everything that has been said against me in the charges against me, but I had no intent to break Russian law,” she said. “I want the court to understand that it was an honest mistake that I made while rushing and in stress trying to recover post-Covid and just trying to get back to my team.”
Russian courts are known to give harsher sentences to high-profile foreigners. In 2020, a Russian court sentenced Trevor R. Reed, a former US Marine, to nine years in prison, in the harshest punishment for the type of crime for which he was convicted. Mr. Reed was later exchanged for a Russian pilot who had been convicted in the United States.
The Biden administration has been under pressure from Ms. Griner’s wife and supporters to negotiate her freedom.
Last week, Mr. Blinken said that the US government had “put a substantial proposal on the table” to the Russian side regarding Ms. Griner and other Americans held in Russian custody. He declined to discuss specifics but a person briefed on discussions about an exchange said the United States had offered to swap a convicted arms dealer, Viktor Bout, for Ms. Griner and another American imprisoned in Russia, Paul N. Whelan.
Russian officials have insisted that the diplomatic wrangling over Ms. Griner should remain behind closed doors. Dmitri S. Peskov, the Kremlin’s spokesman, said on Tuesday that negotiations over a potential prisoner exchange “should be discreet.”
“Megaphone diplomacy and the public exchange of opinions will not lead to result,” he said.
Ms. Griner, a star with the Phoenix Mercury of the WNBA, arrived at a Moscow airport on Feb. 17, on her way to the Russian city Yekaterinburg, where she had been playing for a local team during the off-season. Customs officials checked her luggage, where they found two vape cartridges containing less than one gram of hashish oil.
News of her detention was made public only after Russia invaded Ukraine a week later. Ms. Griner, 31, was charged with an attempt to smuggle a significant amount of banned narcotics into Russia.
During one of the initial hearings in her case, Ms. Griner pleaded guilty to the charge, but insisted that she had no intention to break the Russian law and that the illegal substance had been in her luggage as a result of an oversight while packing in a hurry.