A suspect in an assault on a senior associate of opposition leader Aleksei Navalny has claimed that the target organized the attack on himself, according to police, in what Kremlin critics call a cynical ploy by authorities.
When an unidentified assailant smashed a top aide to Russian opposition leader Aleksei Navalny over the head with a metal pipe last week, the presidential hopeful called the attack "attempted murder."
But now authorities are floating another version that has triggered outrage and ridicule from Navalny and his supporters: the attack was a false-flag operation orchestrated by the target himself.
A suspect detained in connection with the attack has claimed that Nikolai Lyaskin, head of the Moscow campaign headquarters for Navalny's 2018 presidential bid, promised him 150,000 rubles ($2,500) to stage the attack against him and another individual, according to police.
Moscow police released details of the testimony in a September 20 statement, saying the thirtysomething detainee "explained" that Lyaskin made the offer after the man came to Navalny's campaign office in Moscow asking to volunteer.
"For the actions the victim offered the detainee 150,000 rubles, which sparked the latter's interest," Moscow police said in the statement.
The national television network NTV, which has previously aired programs seemingly aimed at discrediting Navalny and other Kremlin critics, later on September 20 broadcast footage of what it said was the suspect, reportedly from the Leningrad region, being questioned by police.
The unidentified man can be heard saying that he told Lyaskin that he wanted to make money, and that the activist "suggested I stage an attack on two people," including Lyaskin himself.
"He promised not to go to police," the man says.
At one point during the footage, the man mixes up the names of Navalny and Lyaskin, saying he sought to volunteer for "Aleksei Lyaskin." He claims Lyaskin gave him a 10,000-ruble ($170) advance on the alleged promised sum.
The September 15 attack on Lyaskin, which he said left him with a concussion, was the latest in what Navalny and his supporters call a campaign of violence and intimidation with either the direct involvement or tacit approval of authorities.
Navalny is attempting to run in the March 2018 election, which is widely expected to hand Russian President Vladimir Putin another six-year term, but officials have said the anticorruption crusader is ineligible due a felony embezzlement conviction that he calls politically motivated.
Lyaskin dismissed the suspect's false-flag claim as ridiculous.
"This is some kind of savage absurdity," he told Ekho Moskvy radio in a September 21 interview.
In a Facebook post a day earlier, Lyaskin said the man identified on social media as the suspect had indeed come to the Navalny campaign's Moscow office asking to volunteer and asking specifically to speak with him.
Lyaskin said it became immediately clear that the man was a "provocateur" and that he knew nothing about Navalny's campaign.
Lyaskin added that he believes the claims of involvement in the attack on himself are part of a setup by authorities aimed at covering up for the actual assailant or for those who ordered the assault.
"In any case, this is a new low, and if the crime isn't solved normally and the true organizers aren't found, then every scumbag will know that you can dispatch any psycho with a pipe and then brazenly chalk it up to the target ordering it on himself," Lyaskin wrote.
Police have opened a criminal investigation on suspicion of "hooliganism" in connection with the attack. One Russian lawyer suggested Lyaskin could face accusations of giving false evidence, which is punishable by prison.
Lyaskin's colleagues and supporters ridiculed the false-flag allegations. Georgy Alburov, Navalny's lead anticorruption researcher, mockingly imagined the conversation between Lyaskin and the suspect:
-- "I found you on the Internet and want to make some money as a volunteer."
-- "Clobber me with a pipe instead. I'll pay you 150,000."
-- "Sounds good."
Other social-media users joked that Lyaskin was involved in other mishaps, crimes, and conspiracies.
"Morgan Freeman told police that Lyaskin paid him for the video accusing Russia of meddling in the U.S. presidential election," one Twitter user wrote, a reference to the Hollywood actor's much-discussed video this week for a new U.S. nonprofit called the Committee To Investigate Russia.
Another Twitter user joked Lyaskin was behind alleged arsonists believed to be linked to a militant campaign against a controversial film about Russia's last tsar, Nicholas II.
In a response to that tweet, still another quipped that the activist was linked to reports that emerged about an errant rocket fired from a helicopter during joint Russian-Belarusian military drills.
"They say the helicopter was also Lyaskin," the Twitter user replied.