The Malta government turned down a request from one of the island's richest men on Friday for a pardon in return for his cooperation in the investigation into a journalist's murder, after freeing a top official he was said to implicate.
After two years of stalled investigations, the authorities have moved rapidly in recent days in the case of journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia, who was blown up with a car bomb in 2017 while working on reports about official corruption.
Her family responded with fury to the decision overnight to set free Keith Schembri, who quit this week as chief of staff to prime minister Joseph Muscat after being arrested in the case.
After a cabinet meeting that ended shortly before 3:00 a.m., Muscat's government decided to reject a request for immunity by Yorgen Fenech, a businessman who was arrested last week while trying to leave Malta on his yacht.
In a separate case showing how corruption allegations have closed in on the government, a court ordered three cabinet ministers on Friday to face a criminal probe over a hospital contract. Two of the ministers had already left the cabinet this week over links to Fenech as the murder case unfolded.
Three men have been awaiting trial for setting the bomb that killed Caruana Galizia, but so far the authorities have failed to track down the person who hired them.
The arrest this week of Schembri, the prime minister's right-hand man, has entangled top officials in the case, and Caruana Galizia's family accuse the government of a cover up.
Angry supporters of the family gathered outside the cabinet meeting in the early hours of the morning. As one minister was driven away, one of Caruana Galizia's sons hurled fruit at his car and shouted obscenities.
The investigation focuses on Fenech, a businessman whose empire included property, retail, hospitality, gambling and energy companies. He handed the business reins to his brother a day before attempting to leave Malta on his yacht.
On Thursday night Fenech turned up at the Malta courts under heavy police escort to file a constitutional application asking President George Vella to decide his pardon request, and not the cabinet, because of conflict of interest.
In the letter to the president, Fenech's lawyers said their client was prepared to give information involving Schembri and two cabinet ministers: Tourism Minister Konrad Mizzi and Economy Minister Chris Cardona. Mizzi resigned on Tuesday and Cardona has 'suspended himself' from his duties. Both deny wrongdoing.
In the separate hospital case, Judge Edwina Grima ordered a criminal investigation into Mizzi, Cardona and Finance Minister Edward Scicluna over the granting of a contract to Vitals Global Healthcare to run three state hospitals. Opposition politicians and campaigners who had pressed for the inquiry say the company was unqualified. The company and the officials deny wrongdoing.
In the murder case, Malta police announced on Thursday night that Schembri had been released and was no longer considered as a person of interest in the investigation.