Thousands took part in demonstrations across Ireland on Saturday to protest against the legal treatment of gender-based violence after soldier Cathal Crotty was handed a fully suspended sentence for the assault of Natasha O'Brien, who was beaten unconscious in a random street attack in May 2022. 

Crotty, 22, from County Clare, was given a three-year fully suspended sentence at Limerick Circuit Court on Friday after he pleaded guilty to the assault. 

The court had heard that Crotty, who was off-duty at the time, assaulted O'Brien in Limerick City Centre after she asked him to stop shouting homophobic slurs. 

The case has sparked national outrage and led to demonstrations across the country, with O'Brien becoming a symbol of how Ireland's criminal justice treats victims of violent crime. 

In handing down a fully suspended sentence, Judge Tom O'Donnell said the assault was appalling, cowardly, and vicious but took Crotty's guilty plea and lack of criminal convictions into account. The judge also said it would be the end of Crotty's army career if he was found guilty. 

Speaking to the Irish Independent, O'Brien said she hoped the judge, who is set to retire in the coming days, walks away from his career with a "sense of utter disgrace and shame" after handing down the suspended sentence. 

O'Brien, who told the court that she was left with PTSD after the attack, said the case highlighted the "brutal" manner in which Ireland's criminal justice system treats victims of assault. 

O'Brien joined around 1,000 protesters in her native Limerick on Saturday to call for an end to gender-based violence. 

"I chose to speak up because I couldn't imagine the impact on other victims. This is enough. This is the time for it to end," O'Brien told the crowd. "They (the Department of Justice) are not listening to us." 

Referring to Crotty's suspended sentence, O'Brien asked "What about me? What about my life? What about so many victims like me?" 

"We all deserve change, we all deserve better, the victims should not be forced to suffer again and again." 

Her friend Shauna Daly, who was present on the night of the attack, told the crowd that O'Brien could have died if she had not intervened. 

Other protests took place in Cork, Galway, and Dublin on Saturday afternoon, with around 400 people gathering in Cork and around 150 people gathering in Galway's Eyre Square. 

Organizers of the Galway protest criticized the lack of a custodial sentence for Crotty and called on protesters to contact elected officials and call for enhanced sentencing guidelines for violent crimes. 

Minister of State Malcolm Noonan described the case as a "watershed moment" and commended O'Brien for having "the courage to speak out for other women". 

He told RTÉ that there is a need to "create a culture where gender-based violence is completely not tolerated in this country". 

"In general, and I make this general point, that women have to feel safe that they can come forward with a complaint," Noonan told RTÉ's Saturday with Colm Ó Mongáin. 

"There has to be a culture in this country for women to feel safe that they can make a complaint about gender-based violence and sexual assault and they're going to be listened to and they're going to be treated fairly in the system because currently there are far too many anomalies that are happening across the country in relation to this." 

Independent TD Marian Harkin told the same program that the suspended sentence did not send a message that violence against women is unacceptable. 

"The message should be clear that violence against women, that beating up women in public or in private is not just unacceptable, it's just something that won’t be tolerated in our society," Harkin told RTÉ. 

"And that message was not made clear this week." 

The Defence Forces said in a statement on Friday that they have begun internal investigations in the wake of Crotty's conviction.